Barriers to consumption of fish highlighted in new report

safefood review of Finfish industry reveals low consumption among consumers across the island

12 September, 2006. A new review of the fish supply chain on the island of Ireland has revealed that despite a highly regulated industry producing a very nutritious food source, the consumption of fish remains low and consumer barriers to purchasing and eating fish still remain.

The review, which concentrates on finfish as distinct from shellfish, is the second in a series undertaken by safefood. The review also addresses key consumer concerns such as freshness of product and foodborne illnesses and also revealed issues related to the handling, storing, preparation and cooking of fish.

Martin Higgins, Chief Executive, safefood explains: “This review highlights that the average population intake of fish is equivalent to less than a quarter of a portion of fish a week on the Island of Ireland. One third of the population do not eat fish, and of the remaining population who do eat fish, their intake is still very low at 35g per day. This low intake falls short of health professional recommendations of eating two portions of fish per week, one of which should be oily. Furthermore, the review outlines that although food safety issues do exist within the fish industry, they are not widespread and do not pose any major risk to human health.”

The review also uncovered issues people on the Island of Ireland have with regard to eating fish which include 70% worrying about the freshness of fish, 62% citing possible food poisoning as a deterrent and 54% being unsure about how to cook fish. Other barriers to purchase and consumption included the expense, taste, smell, presence of bones and the appearance of whole fish with heads and tails.

Dr Cliodhna Foley Nolan, Director of Human Health and Nutrition, safefood commented, “The health benefits of a diet rich in fish cannot be overemphasized. They include a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and the healthy development of the central nervous system in babies. The benefits of fish can be attributed to it being a rich source of protein, n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA), iodine and vitamin D.”

While many bacteria live in water and are naturally present on fish, the risk of developing illness from eating these bacteria is extremely low. However, bacteria such as Salmonella, Campylobacter and Listeria may be introduced during unhygienic processing or handling of fish and fish products and these are more significant in causing foodborne illness. safefood advises that simple practices like washing hands and preparation surfaces, and storing fish similar to raw meat can reduce the risk of cross contamination. The review states that if refrigerated properly (at 5˚C or below), fresh fish will keep for a day or two after purchase or according to the use-by date if pre-packaged.

The review also addressed consumer concerns of potential contamination of fish with heavy metals like mercury or contaminants from polluted waters like dioxins. Research* into commonly consumed finfish from five ports around the Republic of Ireland found that mercury levels were much lower than current EU safe limits and were not a cause for concern,

Further research** involving salmon and trout found low levels of dioxins in wild salmon, farmed salmon and farmed trout in the Republic of Ireland and all levels were below the safety limit.

Guidelines based on potential heavy metal contaminants state that women of childbearing age, pregnant women or nursing mothers should limit their tuna fish consumption to two fresh steaks or four canned portions per week. There is no reason for other adults or children to restrict their intake of tuna.

It should be noted in reference to dietary guidelines that canned tuna does not constitute a portion of oily fish because the canning process has the effect of reducing the level of omega-3 in canned tuna.

Dr Foley Nolan continued, “Like any other food, fish should be stored, prepared and cooked as recommended, in effect treated like raw meat. When fish is purchased, it should be frozen or refrigerated promptly. If frozen¹, it should be stored and defrosted properly in a sealed container on the bottom shelf of a fridge before cooking, to ensure that juices do not drip on to any other foods. If you are unsure about its freshness, fish should smell fresh rather than smelling ‘fishy’. Processed fish products e.g. fish fingers or fillets are convenient and parents and young people should remember that consuming fish in a coated form will inevitably have a higher fat and salt content and may also be lower in essential nutrients. Keeping fish of any form on children’s plates is a good idea and as ever, safefood recommends that people buying processed fish products read the nutritional labels.”

safefood’s review was undertaken in conjunction with the fish industry and copies of the summary document are being circulated to all those involved in the industry and is also available on the safefood website,


  • * Tyrrell, L., McHugh, B., Glynn, D., Twomey, M., Joyce, E., Costello, J. and McGovern, E. (2005) Trace Metal Concentrations in Various Fish Species Landed at Selected Irish Ports, Marine Environment & Health Series No. 20.
  • ** FSAI (2002) Investigation on PCDDs/PCDFs and several PCBs in Fish Samples (Salmon and Trout)
  • ¹ Many processed fish products can be cooked from frozen. Consumers should refer to manufacturers’ cooking guidelines.

Editors Notes

A summary of safefood's review of the finfish food chain is attached. safefood advises consumers to take the following measures in the home when preparing or handling fish:

  • Consumers should follow general common sense measures and make sure that all surfaces, including hands and utensils, are cleaned to prevent cross-contamination.
  • All foods should be stored in a refrigerator at less than 5OC.
  • Raw fish should be packed in separate bags or containers during transport home from the retailer 
  • If refrigerated properly (at 5˚C or below), fresh fish will keep for a day or two after purchase or according to the use-by date if pre-packaged
  • Fish should be refrigerated, cooked or frozen as soon as possible following purchase
  • Frozen (unprocessed) fish must be fully defrosted before cooking. The safest way to do so is in the fridge by placing on the bottom shelf and the juices should not be allowed drip on any other foods.
  • Parents should always be careful when feeding babies/young children fish due to the presence of small bones.
  • Proper and adequate cooking of foods will eliminate the risk of illness from contaminated fish. However, it should be pointed out that fish can be overcooked quite easily, destroying both the nutritional and organoleptic properties of the food.

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