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UC Food Safety
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UC Food Safety

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Is gulf seafood safe to eat?

Fishing has resumed in the Gulf of Mexico, but the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill that began in April has dampened consumer appetites for seafood.  Consumers have concerns about the effect of the oil spill on gulf seafood, and some are eating less seafood now.

In a June 2010 telephone survey of 1,076 consumers conducted by University of Minnesota’s Food Industry Center, Louisiana State University AgCenter and the National Center for Food Protection and Defense, 89 percent said they are concerned about the spill’s effects on gulf seafood, and 50 percent are “extremely concerned.” When asked about their own eating habits, 54 percent of respondents said the oil spill has affected their seafood consumption somewhat, 44 percent said they will not eat gulf seafood, and 31 percent said they will eat less seafood regardless of its origin.

The gulf produces blue crabs, crawfish, oysters, shrimp and about 86 species of fish including albacore, channel catfish, red snapper and tilapia. Consumers are worried about crude oil and dispersants contaminating the food, but experts say gulf seafood is safe to eat.

“There has been no evidence of tainted seafood entering the marketplace,” says Pamela Tom, California Sea Grant advisor. “Seafood from the gulf has never been as highly inspected as it has been now. Harvest waters are re-opened only after extensive government testing proves that the seafood has not been tainted by oil from the spill.”

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), National Oceanographic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the Gulf Coast states cooperate in unison on a protocol to determine when closed federal harvest waters can be re-opened.

Federal inspectors routinely do sensory evaluations or “sniff test,” a rapid method of testing seafood. Highly trained regulatory inspectors can detect oil taint within seconds.  More time-consuming, sophisticated chemical analyses of the seafood are also used. Recently, the California Animal Health and Food Safety Laboratory, operated by the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine for the State of California, was selected by the FDA to conduct chemical analyses in monitoring seafood from the Gulf of Mexico for toxins related to the oil spill.

To help prevent oil-tainted seafood from reaching consumers during the oil spill, Tom joined a national team to disseminate information on seafood safety steps and monitoring for contaminants in seafood shipments and harvests from unapproved waters. She worked with the FDA, the NOAA Seafood Inspection Program, Louisiana State University and the University of Florida to assemble an oil spill website with resources for gulf fish growers, harvesters, processors and seafood buyers.

So how can consumers tell if seafood is good to eat?

“Buy from reputable dealers,” Tom advises. “Smell it. If seafood smells a little fishy, it could be past its prime, but may still be safe to eat.”

At home, consumers also need to practice sanitation and proper temperature cooking and holding controls. Mixing raw seafood products with cooked product is a formula for disaster, she says. Cooked foods should be kept separate from raw foods, which may have natural bacteria present. Spoilage bacteria compete with pathogenic bacteria, but proper cooking of raw fish at 145 degrees F for 15 seconds destroys the bacteria.  If pathogens are re-introduced after the seafood is cooked, under the right conditions pathogenic bacteria can grow and may lead to foodborne illness.

“Some pathogens will grow in your body, while other pathogens may create toxins in food,” Tom says. “Some toxins are heat stable and some are not.  Food safety is a very complex situation and some consumers are more susceptible to foodborne illness than others.”

Safe cooking and holding practices at home include placing seafood on ice or in the refrigerator or freezer soon after buying it. The temperature holding range should be below 40 degrees F or above 140 degrees F.  Bacteria that can cause foodborne illness can grow quickly at warm temperatures between 40 degrees F and 140 degrees F.

Consumers can find more information about seafood safety and quality at UC's Seafood Network Information Center website.

Posted on Friday, September 3, 2010 at 6:48 AM

Make your vegetable garden gorgeous

Vegetable and fruit gardens are taking over American backyards and that is a really good thing. However, many gardeners are forgetting that their backyard should also be a place to enjoy in other ways and hence the food garden really should be a thing of beauty as well as productivity.

I was at a garden in downtown Oakland not too long ago and the garden, while productive for being on a vacant lot, still looked somewhat like a vacant lot. You could tell there were veggies growing, chickens ran around and there were also goats on the lot but it wasn’t really a place of beauty. It looked more like a weedy lot with intermittent plots of veggies.

A beautiful vegetable garden is not difficult but it does take some planning. First, it is important to think about design. Create a garden that is pleasing to the eye with garden beds that are appropriate size for the space, and are repeated in the garden. Include walkways and paths that are clear cut and wide enough for equipment that you will use. Add elements that excite the eye such as an interesting trellis for your peas or a small bird

bath or other elements that create interest.

Hide things that are not attractive with a trellis or with a screen of fruit trees. Everyone needs a place to stack up green garden refuse that needs to be chopped up for the compost pile.

Create space to sit and ponder your garden and rest in the shade. On a hot day out in the garden a little bench with some shade is a welcome respite.

Plan ahead so that you have open beds you can plant in August for your winter vegetables. So often we plant everything for summer and then August comes and we don’t have any room left for broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, onions and garlic.

Consider color as an added element to your garden. Flowers add not only blasts of color but they also enhance the beneficial insect population. Add color to your garden by painting raised beds with colorful designs.

Add something quirky to your garden. Do you have an antique or rusted metal object that can be planted with trailing herbs or strawberries? How about hanging an old stained glass window on a tree branch or a fence. Even colorful bottles hung around the garden add interest and sound.

The key is to make your garden pleasing to the eye as well as the palate.

Pipe trellis.
Pipe trellis.

Posted on Wednesday, September 1, 2010 at 7:11 AM

California's crop diversity is unmatched

On a recent trip to the East Coast, our first in almost 13 years, I reflected on our differing coastal experiences with agricultural diversity. Our travels took us through most of the mid-Atlantic farming region – Delaware, District of Columbia, North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia and Pennsylvania – where we lived for almost 35 years.

We saw the familiar vast fields of corn, soybeans and alfalfa throughout most of the region. There were occasional pockets of other crops: apples, pears and grapes in the more northern parts; sorghum, sweet potatoes, peanuts and tobacco in the more southern states. We also saw occasional plots of sweet corn, green beans, oats and barley. But mostly we saw corn, soybeans and alfalfa.

We stayed at our cousins’ farm in Warriors Mark, Penn. Guess what they were growing – corn, soybeans and alfalfa. However, this year they were also growing Timothy hay for the local “hobby” horse population, as cousin Hank likes to call his high-paying customers. Our cousins have a huge vegetable garden, but do not farm vegetables because, they say: ”We can’t make any money from vegetables, they are not as profitable as the common three field crops." This seems to be the reasoning behind the tri-crop standard.

When we moved from central Pennsylvania to central California 15 years ago, we were intrigued, but mostly mystified, by the crops growing in fields near our home. With the help of new friends and colleagues, we eventually learned to identify fields of sunflowers, tomatoes, walnuts and almonds. We were astonished by the diversity of crops in our new home state, and intrigued by our lack of knowledge about crops we saw by daily. As we traveled throughout the state, our ability to identify roadside field crops grew. We saw acres of artichokes, lettuce, pistachios, figs, olives, kiwi fruit, avocados, all new as field crops to us. Using guides and manuals we found in the ANR Catalog for vegetables, fruit and nut crops, and agricultural production as well as the Fruit & Nut Research and Information Center website photo albums, we were able to identify most of what we saw. We also identified quite a few acres planted in the familiar corn and alfalfa, but hardly any soybeans.

We discovered what was growing in a nearby field when our eyes began to water and our throats close as a field of garlic was harvested. We had the same reaction to rice straw as it burned and canola harvested in a cloud of dust. The first time we saw acres and acres of sunflowers and an almond orchard in full bloom, we couldn’t help but smile. Our sense of smell also assisted in our discovery of newly harvested fields of squash, olives and tomatoes.

You can find more than the acres of corn, soybeans and alfalfa growing along the East Coast, but exceptions are usually planted in a very few acres and in limited locales. However, California’s crop diversity is readily apparent along every highway and byway in every county. Thank goodness!

Equivalent areas covered: mid-Atlantic states = 107,942,470 acres, California = 99,689,515 acres

Alfalfa stretches to the horizon in the Eastern U.S. (USDA photo)
Alfalfa stretches to the horizon in the Eastern U.S. (USDA photo)

Posted on Monday, August 30, 2010 at 10:13 AM
  • Author: Judy Sams

Californians should be careful with eggs

When Bill Clinton was president in the 1990s, his Council on Food Safety identified eggs as a food that poses a risk to children, the elderly and people with compromised immune systems. The Clinton administration launched a safety plan that aimed to eliminate Salmonella contamination in eggs entirely by 2010.

Unfortunately, the goal was not met. This month, a vast outbreak of Salmonella food poisoning prompted the recall of half a billion eggs produced in Iowa. In California, UC Cooperative Extension worked with other agencies and the egg industry to create the California Egg Quality Assurance Program, which is implemented voluntarily by 95 percent of the state’s egg producers. California-produced eggs have been free of Salmonella for the past 10 years.

However, not all eggs sold in California are produced in the state. In fact, the FDA announced this week that Trafficanda Egg Ranch of Van Nuys distributed eggs affected by the recall to grocery stores and foodservice companies in California.

That fact underscores the importance of using basic egg safety measures now and whenever Californians consume eggs, according to UC Cooperative Extension nutrition, family and consumer sciences advisor Cathi Lamp.

“Americans consume an average of 234 eggs per person per year,” Lamp said. “Since infected eggs still make it from the farm to the table, we have more work to do.”

People with health problems, the very young, the elderly and pregnant women (and the unborn child) are particularly vulnerable to Salmonella infections and should be extra careful with eggs, but everyone is advised to take precautions to minimize the risk of being exposed to Salmonella bacteria.

Lamp suggests the following precautions:

  • Modify recipes for foods that were traditionally eaten with raw eggs, including smoothies, Caesar salad dressing, Hollandaise sauce, cookie dough, mayonnaise, ice cream and egg nog. If consumers wish to eat foods with "raw" eggs, prepare them with a pasteurized egg product like Egg Beaters.

  • At the store, choose grade A or AA eggs with clean, uncracked shells.

  • Make sure the home refrigerator is running at 40°F. Store eggs in the coldest part of the refrigerator, not in the door. Don’t wash eggs, as they have a protective coating applied at the packing plant.

  • Use raw eggs within three to five weeks. Hard-cooked eggs will keep for one week. Refrigerate leftover cooked egg dishes and use within three to four days.
  • Cook eggs until both the yolk and the white are firm. Scrambled eggs should not be runny.

  • Casseroles and other dishes containing eggs should be cooked to 160°F (72°C). Use a food thermometer to be sure.

  • Wash hands, utensils, equipment and work areas with hot, soapy water before and after contact with eggs and egg-rich foods.

  • Avoid keeping eggs or foods containing eggs out of the refrigerator more than 2 hours.

Egg safety can prevent a foodborne illness.
Egg safety can prevent a foodborne illness.

Posted on Friday, August 27, 2010 at 8:23 AM

Reader expresses skepticism about flavor research

A recent Food Blog post about a new research effort aimed at improving the flavor of fruits and vegetables found in American grocery stores prompted a scornful e-mail from a reader.

To whom it may concern, the letter-writer began, I find it appalling that $6 million is being spent to study something that any 3rd grader should be able to figure out.

The writer continued: "It is virtually impossible to enhance the flavor of an industrial farmed tomato because the flavor has been bred OUT of the varieties grown by big agriculture in favor of disease resistance and shelf stability. I can pick a green tomato from my yard and let it ripen on the counter and it will be delicious. That will just never be the case with most of the hybrids that have been developed over the past 20 years because flavor was NOT a priority. You can't add it in after the fact."

UC Davis Cooperative Extension specialist Beth Mitcham, director of the UC Davis Postharvest Technology Center, wrote the following response:

"I agree with part of your comment but not entirely. It is true that breeders have focused for many years on yield, disease resistance and long shelf life. However, in recent years, breeders are paying more attention to flavor quality. As you mentioned, you can take a green tomato and ripen it into a great tasting tomato. I have also done this with tomatoes obtained from a commercial field.

"The problem with tomatoes harvested green and ripened after harvest is that the fruit are exposed to low temperatures. Studies have shown that exposure of tomatoes for just 24 hours to temperatures of 50 degrees reduces their flavor compounds by 50 percent.  Most tomatoes are shipped to market at 45 to 50 degrees to reduce softening and decay.  Another problem with green tomatoes and many other fruit is the maturity of the fruit at harvest. The earlier it is picked, the less flavor compounds the fruit will produce when it is fully ripe.

"This $6 million grant is focused on providing growers and shippers with the tools to successfully pick more mature or riper produce and deliver it to consumers with good flavor. We are refining technologies to sort the fruit by maturity and ripeness to remove the under-ripe and overripe fruit before shipment, better packaging to prevent bruising of softer, riper fruit during transport, methods to slow further ripening of riper fruit after harvest that may allow us to ship fruit at higher temperatures so that flavor is not lost.

"While you can always get the best flavor quality when you take a ripe product off the plant and eat it within a day, many US consumers do not have easy access to these products and most cannot get access year-round.  While consumers recognize that fruits and vegetables are good for them, they only eat 2 to 3 servings per day (including French fries) instead of the 5 to 9 servings that are recommended.  We believe that poor flavor contributes to low consumption. Our goal is to improve the flavor quality of fruits and vegetables available through your local grocery market so that consumers eat more – hopefully reaching the 5-a-day recommended for good health."

Posted on Wednesday, August 25, 2010 at 6:43 AM

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