What Is Sushi Grade Fish & Where To Buy It

Is “Sushi Grade Fish” An Actual Designation?

Sushi grade fish awaiting processing The question of what defines sushi grade fish (sometimes also called “sashimi grade fish,” though not as commonly) and “where can I buy sushi grade fish” comes up often and no one seems to accurately or qualitatively answer that question.To answer this question in a straight-forward manner, at least in the US, there is no such thing, per government regulations.

At least the FDA has no such designation, however they do have guidelines and regulations that are followed in the seafood industry in terms of serving raw seafood. Certain states and counties even have their own regulations in addition to the FDA, so it can get complex, however the idea it to maintain safety for the consumer, and quality comes with that.

As for micro standards for sashimi or sushi grade seafood, I have spoken with many in the seafood industry who supply “sushi grade fish” for sushi and sashimi served at restaurants and they all offer the same answer… They do not know of any regulations from either the FDA or any other agencies regarding the term ‘sushi grade’ seafood, which is why suppliers have set up their own micro and chemical parameters for their products.

A personal search of FDA documents turns up the same results, no clear standards as to what allows a store to label or call their fish ‘sushi grade’ or ‘sashimi grade’ and no definition whatsoever of the term. Ultimately, “sushi grade fish” is simply an industry created term that is used to indicate that the seafood is of the highest quality and safe to eat raw. It is, however, an unregulated term, but the phrase offers the seller and the consumer (pun not intended) confidence that the fish (or any “sushi grade” seafood) won’t make the diner ill. And it can vary from fish to fish.

The Details of Processing And Storing seafood For Raw Consumption

The only concern any FDA inspectors have is referred to as the parasite destruction guarantee, which is accomplished by ‘freezing and storing seafood at -4°F (-20°C) or below for 7 days (total time), or freezing at -31°F (-35°C) or below until solid and storing at -31°F (-35°C) or below for 15 hours, or freezing at -31°F (-35°C) or below until solid and storing at -4°F (-20°C) or below for 24 hours’ which is sufficient to kill parasites. The FDA’s Food Code is a model for safeguarding public health, and is frequently updated, typically yearly.

The most recent information available at the time of this article is the 2022 FDA Food Code which recommends these freezing conditions to retailers who provide fish intended for raw consumption. For those curious, the FDA’s previous years food codes can be found as well.

That being said, some exceptions to that rule are bluefin tuna, yellowfin tuna, and farmed salmon. Fish exempt from freezing requirements are found in FDA food code for 2022 section paragraph 3-402.11(B). For further information, please visit the FDA website).

That may all be a mouthful, but it’s the facts. Other than a few specific organisms of concern for some seafood, sashimi standards are set as any other ready-to-eat item, e.g. sushi. This means that, aside from the FDA recommendations and local regulations, there are no specific laws or recommendations for “sushi grade” or “sashimi grade” fish per se, though proper handling of the food is an obvious factor, particularly if you are making sushi yourself.

Due to the heightened regulations on raw seafood, from sourcing to proper handling by the seller, this makes “sushi grade” or “sashimi grade” raw seafood more expensive than other seafood. So another reason that sushi somewhat expensive is not just because it’s from a restaurant, but because of the careful and somewhat standardized steps taken to ensure it safe to eat.

There are are also organizations discussing the uncertainty and trying to draw attention to the current clack of clarity. So while there are requirements in place after catching certain fish, it is mostly a marketing term. However, one of the additional benefits of flash freezing freshly caught fish is that is will preserve the seafood’s freshness and flavor.

Obvious Signs To Look For With Any Sushi Grade Seafood

There are a few things a person should be aware of when eating sushi to ensure the fish is fresh, primarily that the flesh is firm and has a pleasant and not “overly fishy” smell (that being said, some fish have a stronger “fishy” smell than others, such as mackerel versus tuna, and this is normal as long as id does not have a bad odor). If you have the fish itself before slicing it into sushi or sashimi, you will also want to check to ensure it has bright eyes, and that the body shows no obvious signs of bruising, discoloration, or obvious damage.

As for those on the serving side, their main concern seems to be with the seafood vendors. Many of them will declare that the products they provide are “sushi/sashimi” grade but with no standards to back up those claims. In the U.S. parasite destruction is required for those species where that hazard is identified but you’ll find that most chefs will claim that they use “fresh” salmon and other products. This may be because they do not know, perhaps it is delivered thawed by the local supplier (who may or may not have frozen it according to the requirements), or they may even use fresh, never frozen, salmon.

The term “fresh” for sushi quality fish has been linked to higher quality in the minds of many consumers and therefore the restaurants use this as a selling point even though the product may have been previously frozen (usually aboard the fishing vessel) and serving certain species without proper freezing is against regulations.

Sushi rice is another critical part of sushi preparation, for many reasons. Many sushi restaurants use acidification for bacterial control but the final sushi products must be cooled to below 40F before put onto display in a self-service case (in the case of supermarkets, et. al.). However, sushi restaurants do not cool the items before serving to customers since such a short time lapses between preparation and consumption. Once the rice is acidified, time is not used as a control and therefore it can be stored at room temperature where the quality is best and it is also easiest with which to work.

The Takeaway On Eating Raw Seafood

As you can see, there are many issues that affect the quality of the sushi served in restaurants or as ‘ready-to-eat’ meals. But with no federal regulations, it’s all about practical standards and local regulations. When you eat sushi from a quality establishment, you may expect that the FDA requirements for parasitic destruction have been followed, however you are at the mercy of the preparer to make sure that subsequent to being frozen and thawed, your food has been handled properly. On the whole, I don’t worry. But I also don’t eat anywhere that seems like they may not be devoted to proper sanitary standards. Good sushi is, in my opinion, well worth the minimal risk.

There are numerous online sources of sushi grade fish that ship overnight, but if you are fortunate enough to have a Japanese grocery store in your area they often carry thawed fish and other seafood in their chilled section. Be careful as any fish you buy at a store that carries it should be labeled “sushi/sashimi grade,” though, (or some equivalent) or you risk buying fish not intended to be eaten raw.

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