Fish is a very valuable foodstuff. However, fresh and frozen freshwater and marine fish represent a sensitive product group from a hygiene point of view. Poor hygiene can lead to the proliferation of pathogenic germs. Other health risks include parasites,residues and contaminants such as heavy metals, veterinary drugs and pesticides. The consumption of certain butter mackerel (e.g. in sushi dishes) can cause severe digestive disorders in sensitive individuals.
Fish is a very valuable food and contains many important ingredients such as protein, vitamin D and iodine. Fatty sea fish, such as salmon and herring, but also trout are sources of valuable omega-3 fatty acids. Of these omega-3 fatty acids, two are particularly important: docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). They contribute to normal heart function and normal blood pressure. DHA also contributes to the maintenance of normal eye and brain function and should therefore be a fixed part of the diet.
However, by eating a varied, balanced diet and making a conscious choice of foods, each individual can help to reduce his or her intake of undesirable substances via food. We support you with our online tool"Food under the magnifying glass" to make an optimal choice of food.
According to the Austrian Nutrition Report 2017, the average daily consumption of fish for adults is 11-18 g. This is far below the National Nutrition Commission's recommendations for fish consumption.
The following recommendations apply to fish intake according to theAustrian Food Pyramid:
For adults: at least 1 to 2 servings of fish weekly (1 serving = 1 palm-sized, finger-thick piece or about 150 g). Preferably 1 portion of domestic fish species (e.g. char, trout, carp) and 1 portion of marine fish (e.g. salmon, mackerel, herring, tuna). If marine fish is not consumed, 1 tablespoon of canola oil/day should also be eaten. See recommendations on fish consumption from the National Nutrition Commission.
The European Commission recommends that children, pregnant women, nursing mothers and women who want to become pregnant should not eat more than 100 g of predatory fish (shark, swordfish, spearfish and pike) per week.
Situation in Austria
On average, every person in Austria eats eight kilograms of fish per year. Around 6% of the fish consumed is produced in Austria, the rest is imported(Statistics Austria). Controls to ensure the quality of imported goods and to combat illegal fishing are carried out by the Federal Office for Food Safety (BAES) at all trade levels.
In addition, fish and fish products are routinely analyzed by our experts and the food inspection agencies of the federal provinces in the course of food inspection in Austria. Fresh and frozen freshwater and marine fish represent a sensitive commodity group from a hygienic point of view. Due to its composition (low connective tissue content, high concentration of free amino acids, high content of unsaturated fatty acids), fish meat is highly perishable. Within the framework of food inspection, fish are examined for numerous inspection aspects, such as:
- hygiene deficiencies incl. pathogenic germs
- parasites (nematodes)
- Labelling deficiencies or misleading information
- Residues and contaminants, e.g. heavy metals, veterinary drugs, pesticides.
The results are published annually in the Food Safety Report. In addition, fish and fish products are also tested for veterinary drugs, heavy metals and pesticides as part of the National Residue Control Plan.
In 2021, 598 samples of fish and fish products (fish, crustaceans, molluscs and products made from them) were examined organoleptically (odor, taste, appearance) and microbiologically for hygiene parameters, pathogenic germs and parasites, and for labeling deficiencies. Of these, 70 samples (11.7%) were rejected, mainly due to labeling deficiencies and/or misleading information. Two samples (0.3%) were harmful to health due to chlorate.
To ensure that your food also remains safe, you can find tips here on safe food handling.
Fish and fish products are also analyzed for residues and contaminants at regular intervals as part of priority actions. Some are examined in more detail below:
- In 2018, the objective of the focus action "Microbiology, mercury, phosphates and carbonates in marine fish" was to test marine fish for fitness for human consumption, safety and composition. Out of 102 samples, 14 samples were rejected: Five samples due to hygiene deficiencies, three samples had excessive mercury levels, four samples contained unauthorized additives, and two samples were poorly labeled.
- In 2017, smoked fish were tested for PAH and listeria. The aim of the focal action was to check whether the limits for polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), which were lowered in the fall of 2014, were being complied with. In addition, the smoked fish product group was checked for contamination with bacteria of the genus Listeria, as these goods are sensitive products in this respect. 37 samples were examined from all over Austria, two samples were objected to: in one sample the maximum levels for PAHs were exceeded and one sample was objected to due to labeling deficiencies.
- In 2015, we tested freshwater and marine fish for the feed additive ethoxyquin. In order to take current issues into account, a new analytical method was established and two important ethoxyquin degradation products (metabolites), the dimer of ethoxyquin and ethoxyquin-quinoneimine, were included in the range of tests. Ethoxyquin could be determined in 12 of the 44 fish samples from Germany and abroad that have been examined so far, the ethoxyquin dimer in 26 samples and the metabolite ethoxyquin-quinone imine in one sample.
- In 2014, canned fish was analyzed for biogenic amines - substances such as histamine, which can be produced especially in protein-rich and easily perishable foods such as fish and can lead to allergy-like symptoms or even poisoning. Three out of 33 samples were not suitable for human consumption due to a high histamine content. (see Food Safety Report 2014)
- As part of the residue control plan investigations, a total of 224 fish samples were tested for veterinary drugs and hormones in 2014. No residues above the legal limits or unauthorized or prohibited substances were found.
- In 2013, 81 freshwater, and migratory fish samples from different countries of origin were tested for pesticides and polychlorinated biphenyls. Not a single one of these samples had to be rejected. Samples were taken from wild animals as well as from animals from pond farms and aquacultures. Norwegian salmon was also included. In accordance with Regulation (EC) 1881/2006 setting maximum levels for certain contaminants in foodstuffs and the National Pesticide Maximum Level Regulation (SchäHöv) No. 441/2002, there were no exceedances. The samples tested were all classified as "safe". The results of the national pesticide residue program from 2012 paint a similar picture (see Food Safety Reports 2012 and 2013).
- As part of official controls, approximately 1,751 samples of fish and seafood were analyzed for mercury levels from 2007 to 2015. Predatory fish at the end of the food chain contain particularly high mercury concentrations. Of the fish species popular in Austria, trout, carp, char, sardine, sprat, herring, salmon and the "Alaska pollack", which is often processed into fish sticks, are low in mercury. Seafood such as shrimp, squid and mussels also have low levels of contamination, according to current data.
"Butterfish" is the misnomer given to various species of fish, some of which are unrelated. Snake mackerel are by-catches of tuna fishing, while the real butterfish from the perch family are excellent edible fish, the snake mackerel often wrongly called butterfish can cause health problems for sensitive persons.
Currently, two species in particular are on the market in Austria: the butter mackerel Lepidocybium flavobrunneum (English: Escolar) and, more rarely, the oil fish Ruvettus pretiosus (English: Oil Fish). Both are usually offered in the form of steaks and are characterized by firm, almost white, boneless flesh when raw.
In the case of mackerel, the meat contains 18 to 21% oils, with over 90% of these oils consisting of indigestible wax esters. These wax esters, possibly together with elevated histamine levels, can cause severe gastrointestinal upset in sensitive individuals. Symptoms are yellow, oily-waxy diarrhea, sometimes accompanied by violent abdominal cramps.
Regulation (EC) No. 853/2004 stipulates that fish products of the snake mackerel family may only be placed on the market in wrapped/packaged form and must contain information for consumers on the preparation/cooking methods and the risk as a result of substances present that may cause gastrointestinal disorders on the label.
However, this information is difficult for consumers to find. Typically, no such information is found at retail fish counters or in restaurants. A preparation method for snake mackerel that is suitable in all cases to prevent gastrointestinal disorders is not yet known. According to the information available, the removal of the harmful wax esters is not guaranteed with the conventional methods of preparation (frying, smoking, as sushi, etc.). Furthermore, it is unclear from which consumed quantity these health impairments can occur.
Nematodes in fish
Nematodes are threadworms that are commonly found in marine fish. The fish ingest nematode larvae through food, which can then encapsulate as 1.5 to 3 cm long worm larvae in the muscles. Threadworms can also colonize humans if eaten alive. When killed, nematodes and their larvae do not pose a health hazard. Nevertheless, they must not be present in fish and fish products. In principle, producers must check fish for nematodes at every stage of processing. This is also checked during inspections at production plants and on products offered for sale. Nematodes are not a problem in domestic freshwater fish.
To ensure that consumers are still reliably protected from these parasites, EU Regulation (EC) No. 853/2004 stipulates that fish and fish products eaten raw or almost raw must be deep-frozen: for 24 hours at a temperature of -20 °C or below. The same cold treatment also applies to cold-smoked fish, especially herring, mackerel, sprat, Atlantic and Pacific (free-range) salmon, if the core temperature does not exceed 60 °C during smoking.
- When purchasing and transporting, ensure that the cold chain is maintained.
- Before consumption, check the use-by date, do not eat after expiry.
- Sushi quality fish must have been frozen. If you prepare sushi yourself, ask when buying fish. If unclear, the fish should be frozen before preparing it yourself (at least -20 °C for 24h). Also, if you want to pickle a fresh fish at home in salt or marinade in the traditional way, be sure to freeze it beforehand.
- Parasites are reliably killed even when heated, at 70 °C.
- If you have found threadworms in the fish, then contact thefood inspectorate in your federal state and lodge a complaint about the product in the store.
Information on analytical services of food safety can be found here.
Last updated: 21.01.2022