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Fresh Tuna Should Always Be Kept Below 4 Degrees Celsius

While health authorities and fish hawkers in Malta are attempting to reach an out-of-court agreement on the temperatures that fish is stored at when sold at markets, the legal minimum temperature is the subject of controversy among health experts.

17 fish hawkers faced charges from the Public Health division and the Malta Standards Authority for contravening sanitary standards, after inspections revealed the hawkers were not keeping the fish below 8 degrees Celsius – the minimum allowed by law.

Magistrate Jacqueline Padovani Grima let the hawkers off the hook when she called upon all parties to reach an out-of-court settlement.

But what is not known so far is whether health inspectors measured the core temperatures of the fish when they conducted the spot checks, given that, reportedly, ice was “liberally used” to keep the fish cool.

As Environmental Health Director John Attard Kingswell confirmed, as long as foodstuffs are maintained below the 8 degrees minimum imposed by law, the use of ice is still an acceptable method of temperature control.

But it is not known whether the hawkers kept temperature records of their ware, in accordance to the Food Safety Act.

Indeed, the 8 degrees minimum in Malta is subject to controversy among health experts because toxins – poisonous substances capable of causing disease on contact – may develop in food that is kept even at lower temperatures.

Such findings have now led health authorities abroad to reduce their minimum to 5 degrees.

In fact, in an article featured in this newspaper last September, Bacteriologist Joseph Tanti had said: “Beyond 4 degrees Celsius, tuna, mackerel and lampuki produce histamines.”

Histamine is a biogenic amine related to immune responses, that is produced from histidine, a natural chemical in many types of fish, when fish is not stored at very low temperatures. Since histamine is not destroyed by normal cooking temperatures, even properly cooked fish can be affected.

“If you get a serious enough allergy, such as scombroid poisoning, it could be fatal,” Tanti says, referring to the illness that results from eating spoiled fish – the second most common of seafood poisoning. Scombroid tends to be related to mackerel, tuna, dorado (lampuki), bonito, sardines, and anchovies, amongst others.

“We must ensure to never, ever purchase tuna from fish shops keeping it out on the workbench at room temperature,” Tanti said.

Seeing that many fish shops expose steak fish in unrefrigerated environments, Attard Kingswell was asked to comment on his own department’s enforcement measures, as there seems to have been no effective clampdown on this dangerous practice.

“Inspections are also done at fish shops and when they are found contravening the law they are taken to court,” he said.

But although five fish hawkers were prosecuted over the last year, not one fish shop was charged in court by the authorities.

Every business in Malta is inspected at least once a year and the findings of an investigation by Environmental Health Officers does “not always end up in court action,” Attard Kingdswell said in defense.

When asked, Attard Kingswell also clarified that his department does not carry out spot checks at the Malta Fisheries, as this does not fall within the jurisdiction of the Public Health Regulation Division.

As questions on the hygiene standards and practices adopted at the fisheries arose, the health director said: “Control of fisheries is under the department of fisheries, you may refer such a question to the relevant department.”