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Seafood University: Revisit the rules for keeping seafood safe

It's not enough to keep product cold and moving; you've also got to keep it clean

When displaying fish on ice, keep them  separate from each other and don't put fillets directly on the ice. - Dick's Fish and Gourmet Shop
Joanne Friedrick
December 01, 2005

Ready to make your New Year’s resolutions? Why not start 2006 off right by recommitting yourself and your seafood staff to having the cleanest department and freshest products in the area.

By reviewing the basic tenets of seafood handling and storage as well as personal and department hygiene, you can ensure that food safety is never an issue for your customers.

For veterans of the seafood business, seafood safety may seem to be a “no brainer,” but it can be easy to fall into bad habits or simply assume that someone else is making sure proper procedures are carried out.

Chris Arseneault, owner of Seafood @ West Main in Charlottesville, Va., notes that seafood safety involves some fundamental procedures that need to be followed at every step involved in selling seafood, whether it’s cutting fish or developing new prepared meals for sale in the display case.

Arseneault is trained in HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points) and makes sure all his employees are familiar with the program. Then, he says, “it’s just constant monitoring and training.” He conducts weekly meetings at which topics such as personal hygiene and store cleanliness are on the agenda.

Employees at Dirk’s Fish and Gourmet Shop in Chicago have to take a sanitation class conducted by the city,. Chicago requires retail cooler temperatures to be a minimum of 39 degrees, one degree lower than the state requirement, allowing the city to issue its own sanitation certification.

David Friend, owner and seafood manager for Weiland’s Gourmet Store in Columbus, Ohio, runs the seafood department according to the motto “keep it cold, keep it clean, keep it moving.”

Temperature is critical to maintaining seafood safety. The recommended temperature for a cooler is between 32 and 38 degrees F. Friend maintains a cooler temperature of 32 to 34 degrees F, and the display cases are only slightly higher than that — between 34 and 36 degrees F.

Arseneault also maintains his coolers at about 34 degrees and relies on a good layer of ice to keep fish even colder. When receiving and storing product, “we want to see ice, not fish,” he says.

Fucik says even though his cooler may be at the recommended temperature, he also likes to keep fish on ice to prevent it from drying out. Many retailers remove fish from its original packing, especially cardboard boxes, and repack it on ice in clean trays or pans.

At The Good Food Store in Missoula, Mont., Assistant Meat and Seafood Manager Eric Hart says it’s important to check the temperature of the product you’re purchasing and to send back anything that doesn’t meet your store’s standards.

Keeping seafood cold is only one part of the safety equation; cleanliness is also paramount.

Bacteria can lurk in the tightest corners as well as on frequently used surfaces, such as cutting tables and utensils. All must be thoroughly cleaned and sanitized, including sinks, cases, scales, trays, ice and cutting tables, signage, utensils, floors, disposal equipment and the like.

Coolers and freezers should be cleaned several times a day, during setup and shutdown in the department as well as when product is received.

Cleanliness applies to the staff as well. Freshly cleaned gloves, hairnets, hats, aprons and uniforms should be worn each day. As aprons become soiled, they should be changed, and gloves should be replaced with each new transaction.

Even when wearing gloves, hands must be washed upon entering or returning to the department or following such chores as cleaning or taking out the trash.

Fucik points out that wearing gloves can still lead to contamination if employees rub their nose with the gloves or touch a contaminated surface, so he emphasizes handwashing in his store.

In some segments of retailing, sellers “stack it high and watch it fly.” But that just doesn’t work when it comes to selling seafood. To keep seafood safe, it’s important to put out only as much as is needed for the day or even for a portion of the selling period.

Friend brings out only a little bit of the day’s allotment when he sets up his seafood case in the morning.

“You never pile it too high,” he says, because then it’s not possible to maintain the proper temperature.

After filling the case with fresh ice, Friend places the fish on trays. Weiland’s prefers to buy whole fish whenever possible, he says, not only to ensure quality and freshness but to make certain that what they buy is actually what they get.

“We cut all day long,” says Friend, and trays are cleaned each time stock is replenished to avoid the risk of contamination. Cutting tables are also cleaned between uses, and fish waste is removed from the department and stored in a drum in the freezer.

Arseneault says knives and cutting boards in his shop are washed after every sale.

“We’re relentless about maintaining cleanliness,” he says. Arseneault displays fish on plastic trays that are lined with butcher paper.

“We keep a moderate amount on the trays and constantly replenish our inventory,” he explains.

In Hart’s department, a layer of cling film is placed on the fresh ice, with the fish then displayed on top of the film. The exception is salmon, which is displayed skin side down directly on the ice. A fresh supply of kale is used between each row of fish to keep products separated, Hart says.

As stock is renewed during the day, the older fish is moved to the back and newer items are placed at the front of the case to maintain proper rotation.

Fucik places his cut fish in pans that drain and buries them in the ice to keep the fish in the case cold. Whole fish is often displayed directly on the ice, he notes.

Prepared salads and spreads or cooked items should also be separated from raw products to avoid cross contamination. In the cooler, says Fucik, it’s necessary to put cooked and smoked items on shelves above the raw product.

Fish and shellfish are also kept separate, says Hart, with live shellfish such as clams and mussels stored in their own bowls. The seafood in the bowls is given a clean coldwater bath each day, he says, and supplies are checked by hand to determine if anything has perished overnight.

Both Hart and Friend emphasize that keeping the department in good order means knowing when to clear out the bad stuff. The seafood department, says Friend, “should never smell bad.”

“If it has an off color or odor, toss it,” says Hart.

While keeping the department clean and emphasizing personal hygiene aren’t the most exciting part of retailing, Arseneault says they’re not something to take lightly.

“Maintain quality and you’ll maintain a satisfied customer,” he says.
 

 December 2005 - SeaFood Business 

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