Salmon is the third most popular type of seafood in the US and for good reason.1 It’s a great source of important nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D, selenium, and other vitamins and minerals. It’s a versatile fish that can be served cold (smoked salmon), hot (oven-roasted salmon), or raw (sushi or sashimi).
The health benefits and safety of consuming salmon depend largely on how salmon is stored and prepared. While raw salmon dishes like poke, ceviche, and tartare have long been a staple of Pacific Islands, Alaska, Japan, and Latin American cultures, eating raw fish can pose serious health risks.
Raw Salmon Risks You Should Know
Raw or undercooked salmon can be contaminated with bacteria, parasites, and other disease-causing agents. For this reason, the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA) recommends cooking all seafood until it reaches an internal temperature of 145°F.2
If you plan to eat raw salmon, it’s best to eat fish that has been frozen or flash-frozen. The freezing process can kill parasites that may be present in the fish, so this minimizes your risk. However, freezing will not eliminate bacteria and viruses, which could lead to food poisoning, abdominal pain, and other health complications.2
Below is a list of potential infections you can get from eating raw salmon:3,4,5
- Staphylococcus aureus
- Listeria monocytogenes
- Escherichia coli
In addition to parasites (tapeworms), viruses, and bacteria, both wild and farmed salmon can also contain marine pollutants such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), organochlorine pesticides, and polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs).6
Exposure to these compounds has been found to cause liver damage and respiratory issues. Moreover, studies using animal models have shown these compounds can cause cancer and neurotoxicity.7
Who Should and Shouldn’t Eat Raw Salmon
While the FDA recommends that everyone choose cooked options over raw seafood, some groups are at a higher risk of foodborne illnesses and pathogens and have an increased risk of serious complications.
The following populations are advised not to consume raw seafood:2
- Pregnant women
- Older adults
- Cancer patients
- Chronic liver disease patients
Keep Enjoying Salmon the Right Way: How to Purchase It and Store It
If salmon is properly stored and prepared, it can be a very safe and nutrient-dense protein option. Below are tips on how to safely choose, store, and prepare salmon:2,8
- Only buy fresh salmon that is refrigerated or on a thick bed of fresh ice. Aim to buy high-quality or sushi-grade salmon.
- Choose salmon that smells the freshest and mildest (not overly fishy). You can ask to see and smell the fish at the grocery store before purchasing.
- Whole fish should have firm flesh and red gills.
- Salmon fillets shouldn’t have discoloration or darkened pigmentation.
- When purchasing frozen salmon, look for wild salmon products and avoid open or torn packages, as well as those with frost or ice crystals.
- Salmon should be placed in the refrigerator (with the temperature at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or lower) or the freezer.
- Don’t leave salmon out of the refrigerator for more than two hours. Bacteria can grow quickly at warm temperatures.
- Keep raw salmon away from ready-to-eat foods in the refrigerator.
- Use a separate cutting board for raw seafood.
- Wash your hands thoroughly after handling any raw meat or seafood.
Salmon should be cooked to an internal temperature of 145°F, which can kill harmful bacteria and parasites. The best way to do this is with a food thermometer.
Try it oven-roasted, pan-seared, or even on the barbecue. While smoked salmon is technically cooked, it often contains listeria. A study out of Germany found that up to 18% of cured or smoked fish contained listeria. Listeria can cause miscarriages, blood poisoning, and meningitis, so pregnant women are advised to avoid cured and smoked seafood as well as raw.9
How To Know When Salmon is Spoiled
Raw spoiled salmon can have varying degrees of sour, fishy, or ammonia-type odors. If your salmon does not have a fresh mild smell, you should not eat it.2
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