Is sushi really safe to eat?

We cook chicken. We cook pork. We cook beef (okay, some of us more than others — I take mine medium-rare). So why do we eat raw fish? Is sushi really safe?

The why is pretty simple: to many of us, raw fish tastes fantastic, and has a completely different than cooked fish. As for the safety of eating uncooked fish… well, that’s pretty simple, too.

Oka Sushi - Assorted Sushi

Hey, fish — freeze!

One big reason why sushi fans don’t have to worry about getting sick from eating raw fish is simple: The FDA mandates that any fish served as sushi in the US must first be frozen. Specifically, for seven days at -4 degrees F, or for 15 to 24 hours at -31 degrees F (depending on selling temperature). This kills any parasites that could be contained within the fish.

Furthermore, documentation is required to verify parasite destruction of each type of fish that will be served raw, partially-cooked or only marinated — except for Yellowfin tuna and Bigeye tuna (ahi), Northern bluefin tuna and Southern bluefin (maguro), and farm-raised, aqua-cultured fish.

Also see: Leftover sushi? Don’t let it languish in the fridge

When it comes to foodborne illness, the CDC reports that the number of people who fall victim to sushi-related illness is far, far lower than the number of people who fall victim to contaminated produce every year.

The most likely culprit for foodborne illness from eating sushi comes from the rice — bacillus cereus spreads rapidly at rice that sits at room temperature. Luckily, sushi rice is prepared with vinegar, lowering its pH to 4.1, killing most of the pesky microbes that make us sick.

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Experts agree you’re far more at risk from e. coli or salmonella poisoning from undercooked beef and chicken, respectively, than you ever are from eating sushi.

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One thing to keep in mind, however, is certain types of fish can be high in mercury, which is poisonous to humans.

Also see: Why do fish have mercury in them?

If you’re a casual sushi eater, you don’t really have much to worry about here, as the doses are low enough to be of little concern. If you are throwing down at the local sushi bar weekly, or are pregnant or planning on becoming pregnant, here’s a partial list of common fish known to be high in mercury content:

  • Ahi (yellowfin tuna)
  • Hamachi (young yellowtail)
  • Kajiki (swordfish)
  • Maguro (bigeye, bluefin, or yellowfin tuna)
  • Saba (mackerel)
  • Toro (bigeye, bluefin, or yellowfin tuna, sometimes called “fatty tuna”)
Careful with the puffer fish

Known as fugu — as well as blowfish and pufferfish, among other names — only come from two safe sources, according to the FDA. They need to be either imported puffer fish that have been processed and prepared by specially trained and certified fish cutters in Shimonoseki, Japan, or 2) puffer fish caught in the mid-Atlantic coastal waters of the United States.

The problem isn’t foodborne bacteria, and the stakes are much higher. The liver, gonads, intestines and skin of some puffer fish contain the toxins tetrodotoxin and/or saxitoxin, which are more deadly than cyanide and can affect your central nervous system. (Making the situation worse is that there are no known antidotes for these toxins.) Therefore, fugu must be cleaned and prepared properly so the organs containing the toxins are carefully removed and don’t contaminate the fish flesh. (The toxins cannot be destroyed by cooking or freezing.)

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Before ordering or buying puffer fish, ask where it came from — and when in doubt, skip the fugu and try something else.

Bon appetit!

The bottom line is — go ahead and shove those rolls, sashimi, and nigiri down your throat by the handful, you’re highly unlikely to get sick from it. Less likely than you are to get sick from a rare steak, in fact. So what are you waiting for? Get out there and give sushi a try! (Just don’t hang on to any leftovers after a day.)

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