There are three fundamentals to being an informed shellfish consumer:
- Knowing the source.
- Understanding handling.
- Knowing how to assess quality.
Sourcing Your Shellfish
Where are the shellfish from? As a consumer, you want to know that your shellfish was harvested by a licensed harvester from a certified shellfish growing area (according to the guidelines of the National Shellfish Sanitation Program (NSSP). NSSP is a consortium of federal, state and industry representatives that creates rules for the safe regulation of the shellfish industry. Always do business with a reputable chef or seafood dealer. Every container of shellfish must be marked with a tag telling its place of origin, date of harvest and license number of harvester. Don’t be shy to ask your purveyor to see the tag from the lot of shellfish that you want to by. As a gourmet, you will also want to know where your shellfish are from because of the amazing array of flavors that characterize each growing region.
How Your Shellfish are Handled
How were the shellfish handled and how should you handle them to maintain their quality? All shellfish should be refrigerated or well iced by your purveyor. As certified growers and wholesale dealers we have stringent requirements for handling and quality control under new Federal guidelines called HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point). Yes, the wholesaler that you buy shellfish from is required by the FDA to be HACCP certified. All dealers that are certified to ship interstate are listed on the USFDA Interstate Certified Shellfish Shippers List. Once you buy shellfish, you must keep it cold but never allow it to freeze. It should be kept betweeen 35 and 45 degrees F. Most shellfish have a shelf life of about one week from the date of harvest. We ship to our customers within 24 hours of harvest.There really is no reason to be eating shellfish more than a few days from harvest: they taste so great fresh. We tell our customers the exact date and time that their shellfish were harvested. Your purveyor should also provide you with this information. Clams and oysters should be kept in a shallow dish in the refrigerator either uncovered or draped with a clean wet towel. Shellfish should be kept away from blowers in refrigerators or coolers because that dries them out and kills them. They may loose some juice during refrigeration but they shouldn’t sit in their juices. You could put them in a colander or perforated container inside another container to collect the juice or you could just decant the juices regularly.
To cook or not to cook? Although we often eat our shellfish raw, the FDA requires all shellfish dealers to provide consumers with the following warning: “Thoroughly cooking foods of animal origin such as beef, eggs, fish, lamb, poultry, or shellfish reduces risk of foodborne illness. Individuals with certain health conditions may be at higher risk if these foods are consumed raw or undercooked. Consult your physician or public health official for further information.”
How do you assess shellfish quality? Use all your senses when selecting shellfish. You are buying a living organism and they must show signs of being healthy and fresh. Look at the shellfish to see that it has a moist, fresh looking shell that is not gaping open. If a clam or oyster is agape, tapping the shell should cause it to close quickly, otherwise it is either dead or about to die. Smell the shellfish, it should have a clean, sweet ocean smell and no hint of anything foul or fishy -if it smells at all off – reject it. Listen to your shellfish. If you gently tap clams or oysters together, they should have a solid sound like pool balls knocking together indicating that they are tightly closed and full of liquid. If they sound at all hollow they are probably weak – reject them.