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Five tips for buying fresh seafood

Despite living in the pacific northwest, southern Oregonians aren't quite close enough to the coast to catch their own shrimp, lobster or crab in time for a tasty dinner. And while salmon and trout are readily available in local rivers and lakes, that doesn't always equate to convenience.

Luckily, local markets go to great lengths to keep fresh seafood and fish on hand. For the most part, supermarket cases offer tempting specimens of salmon, shrimp and other favorites. Left unsold, however, a less-than-fresh catch can pose problems from foul-smelling odors to food poisoning or worse.

When navigating the waters of seafood shopping, consumers are wise to know the ins and outs of deciphering a fresh catch from one that's past its prime.

"Dead fish doesn't talk," says Ashland Food Co-Op meat and seafood department manager Terry Boaz. "Anybody that really knows seafood, they want freshness and quality. Average people that are not real savvy, they really don't know. You want to look how it looks, how it's packaged and how it smells."

Fish shouldn't smell like fish. If it looks like a fish and smells like a fish, eat more chicken!

"That's a biggie," says Ocean Beauty Seafoods representative Chad Clark.

"You definitely - and I mean definitely - don't want your fish to smell fishy. That's a telltale sign that it's old. It should smell somewhat like seawater and not like rotten fish."

Visibly, fresh seafood should be bright in color and not dull. Fresh king salmon, for example, is brightly colored, Boaz says. Red snapper? Note the reference to the color red?

"Fish loses its color and starts to stink when it's been sitting too long or hasn't been handled properly," notes Boaz. "You want bright colors, not gray or brown. It should look like it does when it's caught."

If freshly caught, and handled with care, fish should not look battered or have bruised flesh, Clark says. "There are several different things to look for. In whole fish, gills need to be nice and red - not mangled or missing. Eyes will still be clear. We don't necessarily have a seafood market here in the valley so you've really got to pay attention to what you're getting," he says.

"If someone's really on top of their game, they can keep nice fresh fish in their case. But it's up to the customer to know what to look for."

Fish should be labeled with a "date caught" or "good through" date.

"Fresh seafood should be kept no more than two days, especially if it's been filleted or cut up," Clark says. "Once they start cutting the fish off the bone, it creates surface area for bacteria to grow on. Everything they do to process the seafood takes away from freshness and on how long before it needs to be cooked."

Finally, fresh fish should never sit alongside prepackaged bacon or week-old hamburger, Clark says. "If it's wrapped in cellophane next to hamburger, you're better off with the boxes of fish in the frozen department. Fish is supposed to be iced down properly."

When choosing where to buy seafood, cruise past the seafood counter and see how fish is handled. A clean and busy seafood counter can indicate lots of turnover, meaning fresher selection. Most importantly, ask questions, urges Boaz.

"Ask where it comes from. A lot of companies have their product trucked down from Alaska, which can take two to three days. We have ours flown down," he says.

"Ask when it was caught and how it was transported. You can lose a day or two real quick in warmer temperatures. Fish is best kept at 28 to 32 degrees. You want fish that's been handled well, stored properly… and that was just swimming the day before."

Five tips for buying fresh seafood