When we think of sushi, we think of a healthy and delicious meal. We often forget that while eating sushi is in general safe, there is always an elevated risk to consuming a raw product. Even with government regulations, sometimes bacteria and tainted fish can enter the country, and only cooking food completely can render it safe. In March 2012, 425 people were infected with Salmonella in the US, the vast majority from consuming spicy tuna rolls. The culprit was a shipment of frozen raw yellowfin from India. The FDA concluded that it was likely that the Salmonella Bareilly was caused by inadequate sanitary controls after harvest, during processing and packaging. The sushi was distributed mainly in 4 grocery stores.
Salmonella affects over a million Americans every year, with an estimated 19,000 hospitalizations and 380 deaths. Illnesses can last 4 to 7 days and in severe cases demand hospitalization. A recent case of Salmonella linked with sushi affected an estimated 62 people in 11 states, linked to raw fish imported through the Osamu Corporation from Indonesia. Once again, raw tuna was the culprit, sending 11 people to the hospital with severe symptoms. The bulk of the sushi was bought at workplace cafeterias and grocery stores.
Does this mean that grocery store sushi is less safe than in a restaurant? While 2 incidents is perhaps not enough to point the finger at groceries stores, cafeterias, and cheaper sushi options, I would advise caution with buying sushi that has been sitting out in the open. When you are putting yourself at risk, you need to be able to trust the restaurant or store that you are buying sushi from.
Can freezing the fish make it safe? One method used to make sushi safer is the process of deep freezing. New York has implemented rules requiring raw fish to be frozen in order to kill parasites. In fact, fish is often flash frozen in freezers directly on the vessels which catch them for transportation and to reduce parasites such as worms which can live in tuna and be harmful to humans. While deep freezing is useful against parasites, it can only slow, not stop, bacteria like salmonella. Only the cooking process can eliminate salmonella and other food born illnesses.
What is the bottom line? There are always going to be risks associated with eating raw food. If you are pregnant or have a weakened immune system, you should not consider eating sushi or sashimi. If you’re a healthy adult who does not have other risk factors, then you need to make the choice for yourself. One strategy for reducing risk is to use the FDA’s website at http://www.fda.gov/ to keep yourself appraised of any recent outbreaks of salmonella poisoning and other illnesses associated with eating sushi. And while I can’t tell you what to do – make sure you trust where you are getting your sushi from.