Cooking seafood is already a challenge for many consumers. Add to that concerns about bacteria, mercury and other food safety-related issues, and the seafood equation becomes even more complicated.

But much of the concern is hype. Seafood, when sourced from the right areas and handled properly, is among the safest fresh foods in the industry. The industry has a stellar record, for instance, on toxin levels.

Seafood producers and those further down the supply chain are working hard to get that message out to consumers, with increasing success.

Much of the seafood sold in the US comes from Norway under the Seafood from Norway banner. Norwegian authorities, research institutions, environmental organizations and the fishing industry work together to ensure that the industry remains stable, sustainable and safe, said Egil Ove Sundheim, US Director of the Tromso-based Norwegian Seafood Council.

“Due to the importance of food safety and quality, the Norwegian Agency for Food Safety and the Norwegian National Institute for Nutrition and Seafood Research have implemented extensive programs to monitor safety and quality,” Sundheim said. “There are very strict regulations in place to protect food safety, which includes technologically advanced systems that relay information to the farmers and their veterinarians.”

And if a food safety-related incident does occur, the Norwegian seafood industry has emergency plans in place to protect its fish, and therefore consumers, Sundheim said.

“To ensure we are producing high quality and safe products, we regularly monitor to ensure we are both meeting and exceeding government and industry standards.”

Finding the right partners

Blue Circle Foods, Washington, D.C., only partners with farmers and processing facilities that not only meet the company’s high sustainability standards but also its equally stringent food safety standards, says Nina Damato, the company’s supply chain manager.

“That means that when we look at partnering with facilities around the world, we review their third-party audits and their food safety certification to make sure they’re not only third-party certified but also very highly rated,” she said.

One of Blue Circle’s top products is smoked salmon. It’s a product that takes a lot of attention to bacteria levels and myriad other details, and so how processing facilities are treating it is critical, Damato said. Blue Circle and its partners apply that same laser focus to all seafood products they work together on.

“When we work with any partner we’re constantly in very close communication about all the layers of safety,” she said. “We visit the facility to view in detail what’s happening. The partners we work with have the ability to test bacteria in the facility both inhouse and at a third-party lab.”

It’s crucial that facilities are cleaned thoroughly after every production run to ensure that bacteria are kept at bay, Damato said.

To maintain an airtight lid on bacteria, Blue Circle and its partners swab and test thousands of samples every year, Damato said. The company also utilizes a lotting system, through which it’s able to track all products that come in.

“We’re able to take control over every product from the farm all the way through to the actual product in the package, which is great,” she said.

And for those occasions when bacterial infections do occur, processors must have a quality control department that really understands what is going on and how to address it, Damato added.

Another central tenet of a successful food safety program for seafood is a total commitment to cold chain integrity.

“We work with folks who understand that maintaining the cold chain is of the utmost importance,” she said. “And when we bring our products in, we freeze them as quickly as possible, so that really maintains integrity of product.”

After freezing, Blue Circle and its partners keep product at a very low temperature all along the supply chain.

Clean water, safe fish

The Norwegian industry, pioneers in aquaculture, have created a framework that combines strict health regulations and close safety monitoring to develop the industry. The industry’s biggest asset, however, is its vast bodies of clean water, Sundheim said.

Norway has strict criteria that farms must meet in order to obtain a license. Farms must be in the open sea, in the cold and clear waters of the country’s fjords, and far enough away from maritime traffic areas to ensure fish health.

While some food safety challenges affect the majority of food industries, there are other challenges unique to seafood, Sundheim said.

Some of them have to do with perception more than reality.  

Many people, for instance, think that seafood, especially farmed seafood, is unsafe to consume because of potential toxins. But according to Journal of the American Medical Association figures cited by the Norwegian Seafood Council, seafood’s toxic equivalents (TEQ) is 9%, while vegetables, for instance, are at 22%.

Another common food safety challenge is the concern over the use of animal antibiotics. The health of Norwegian farmed fish, combined with effective vaccines and the strict application of the country’s aquaculture laws, has enabled the industry to virtually cease using antibiotics in its fish altogether.

Continuous improvement

To keep on top of food safety, companies must constantly be looking at ways to improve their programs, Damato said.

“As there are innovations in the field, we look to our partners and work with them to make sure they are being implemented,” she said. “I think that one really important thing is there’s not a level of complacency, that the consistency of no listeria, no harmful bacteria is being maintained, and how do we continue to improve on that.”

In general, with perishable products you have to stay in very tight control of your inventory, Damato said.

“When we develop new products, we’re constantly looking to make sure that our processors can produce those products in super hygienic facilities. We’d like to be a trusted resource for not only bringing a really clean and nutritious product to market but also really safe one. That’s part of how we like to be seen in the market.”

Many food safety problems can be mitigated by going to the very beginning of production—what the fish eat.

“From the contaminant side, we’re looking at the salmon feed and how we can clean it up,” Damato said. “We want to have a clean a product as possible from the very beginning.”

To that end, Blue Circle removed the PCBs, mercury and other contaminants from the feed given to its farmed salmon.

“It’s really unique what we’re doing in farmed salmon,” she said. “It enables us to have full control over what the salmon is eating so we can know the contaminant levels.”

As the popularity of seafood grows, it’s more important than ever, Damato said, to make sure it’s a product that consumers can trust will be safe to eat.

“Seafood’s a great sector because it’s growing and there’s a lot of opportunity for innovation. It’s exciting to see that we have such a great opportunity to bring new, interesting products to market, and we want to do that in a really clean facility with really clean salmon, really clean clod to begin with, so it all comes together.”