There Could Be Something Fishy Going On

If you experience symptoms resembling an allergic reaction after eating, there could be something fishy going on. A recent advisory from the FDA reminds us that even fully cooked fish can harbor toxins if it has not been handled properly.

Fresh salmon on ice for sale at the fish market.

It’s no secret that fish and seafood taste better when they’re extremely fresh. I live more than seven hours from the nearest ocean. While there are restaurants here that overnight fish in, it never compares to simply prepared red snapper or mahi-mahi caught and cooked within a couple of hours.

Not only do fish taste better when fresh, some require conscientious handling to prevent toxins from forming. Albacore, amberjack, anchovy, Australian salmon, bluefish, bonito, kahawai, herring, mackerel, mahi-mahi, needlefish, saury, sardine, skipjack, wahoo, and yellowfin tuna are all susceptible to the formation of scombroid toxins when not properly stored or preserved.

Simply buying vegetables and berries will show you that the cold chain is suspect in many grocery stores. It would take more than the fingers on both of my hands to count the number of times in the past year I’ve gotten spoiled greens, sugar snap peas, or berries purchased within the best by or sell by date and used immediately. Okay, not used, but opened and thrown away.

With vegetables and fruit, this is an annoyance. With fish, it can be dangerous. When bacteria grow in the dark meat of susceptible fish, they can form scombroid toxins. The bacteria are killed by cooking, but the toxins remain.

Scombroid toxins can cause allergic-like responses. The symptoms usually begin about an hour after consumption and include nausea, vomiting, flushed face, cramps, diarrhea, and headache. Other symptoms include itching, hives, fever, pounding heart, and a burning sensation in the mouth. Severe reactions can include dropping blood pressure, racing heart, and wheezing. Symptoms of scombroid poisoning are generally treated with diphenhydramine and ranitidine, but please consult your doctor if you believe you have been affected or have any severe or lingering symptoms.

There are no accurate tests to determine the presence of toxins in fish, but if it tastes metallic or peppery, it’s an indication that something fishy could be going on. If the chef indicates the preparation is not heavy on pepper, it may be best to discontinue eating and choose another option.

I hate throwing away food, especially food I just bought. Nonetheless, I’ve had to become increasingly vigilant in monitoring my purchases. In fact, I now limit what I buy from one large grocery brand because I am concerned about its cold chain.

Oily fish like salmon, sardines, mackerel, and tuna are a great source of Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids which have been shown to reduce inflammation. They are high in protein and are a source of vitamin D and riboflavin. The American Heart Association recommends eating at least two servings of fatty fish per week as party of a healthy diet.

The FDA’s recent advisory is a good reminder, but not an ominous warning to avoid all fish. You can lessen the risk of potential problems by carefully choosing the source when purchasing fresh fish and following storage recommendations afterward.

Writing this is making me hungry for some baked halibut encrusted with pistachios and parmesan or smoked salmon with dill sauce. Actually, I’d enjoy a sardine on a cracker about now. Maybe I’m just hungry! Or maybe, there could be something fish going on….