Is the fish you’re buying really fresh? How to know you’re getting what you pay for

(KHON) — When you’re shopping for groceries, words like organic and local can play a big part in how much you pay for food.

What about fresh?

When it comes to fish, that one word can make a major difference in the price you pay. Whether it’s cooked, raw, or seared, the most important factor is freshness.

But how do you know if what you’re paying extra for is really fresh, and what exactly does that mean?

To shopper Audrey Dwyer, fresh means “wild caught that day.” To shopper Jarret Grushkowitz, it means “not frozen and cut within a few days.”

So what’s the real answer? We went to the experts. Turns out, there is no simple answer.

“There is no legal definition of what fresh is,” says Peter Oshiro with the Hawaii Department of Health. “What the state law requires is that if a fish purveyor or market freezes the fish prior to being sold, it has to be labeled as such. So if you’re going to freeze the fish, it has to be prominently labeled as previously frozen.”

At Tamashiro Market in Kalihi, you’ll only find fresh fish for sale. Guy Tamashiro makes sure of that. He’s at the fish market every day, not just to see the fish, but to know the fishermen who catch it and bring it in.

“It has to not only be fresh out of water, but also taken care of,” Tamashiro says. “It has to go into ice brine to get it cold, the core temperature has to come way down, and that’s another step to it. It’s not just fresh out of the water.”

“Assuming that process is met, the fish can be considered fresh and be on boat for several days before winds up at the auction or here too, right?” a KHON reporter asks.

“That’s true,” Tamashiro says. “Like I said, it’s how it’s taken care of.”

If you buy your fish at Tamashiro Market, you’re pretty guaranteed it’s fresh. But what about going to a restaurant or to the grocery store? How do you know if what you’re getting really is fresh, versus previously frozen?

Both Oshiro and Tamashiro say you should ask.

“A lot of people, I guess they mix the term. They might say freshly made, but even if it’s previously frozen poke, it has to say freshly made, previously frozen. They can’t just allude to the fact and use the word fresh if it’s not,” Oshiro says.

Oshiro is quick to point out, there’s never been a single health issue in the state tied to previously frozen fish or fish treated with carbon monoxide, though he says it is a matter of taste.

“The longer it’s frozen, you’re going to lose quality,” Oshiro says. “We would recommend not more than a year for previously frozen beef, chicken, and pork. Obviously fish is going to deteriorate a lot faster, so maybe six months for freshness. But there is no food safety question involved. Food can literally be years and years old. It’ll be safe to eat, but it will be horrible from a taste standpoint.”

Back to the fresh fish. Tamashiro says for him, it’s all about knowing what you’re buying.

“We make the effort to select fish that are the freshest on the boat. Not just any fish, but looking for the one with the nice shiny eyes, the nice skin, and it’s a whole process, but I think it’s worth it,” he says.

Because there’s such a premium on fresh fish, pretty much all fish brought into auction remains fresh.

The previously frozen product, which generally costs about half as much, comes mostly from Indonesia and the Philippines.

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