Effect Measure

Puffer fish: your last meal?

Puffer fish are notorious. Considerable delicacy in Japan (a taste adopted by some non-Japanese Foodies), they come with a side of risk: some puffer fish have the potent lethal toxins tetrodotoxin and/or saxitoxin, neurotoxins more than 1000 times the lethal potency of cyanide:

Symptoms start within 20 minutes to 2 hours after eating the toxic fish. Initial symptoms include tingling of the lips and mouth, followed by dizziness, tingling in the extremities, problems with speaking, balance, muscle weakness and paralysis, vomiting, and diarrhea. In severe intoxications, death can result from respiratory paralysis. (US FDA)

Not all puffer fish have toxin (NB: puffer fish are also called fugu, bok, blowfish, globefish, swellfish, balloonfish, or sea squab). But you can’t tell from looking at it if they are the deadly kind. So pufferfish meals have always have a little extra frisson associated with them. Part of the pleasure, I guess. You can improve your chances living to eat another meal, however, if you know the fish has been caught in an area where the fish are toxin-free or are fish that have been specially prepared to prevent the edible flesh from being contaminated with these potent toxins. This is possible because most of the toxin(s) are found in the liver, ovaries or testes, intestine or skin, so the fish meat skilled processors can prepare the fish by removing these organs in ways that prevent the rest of the fish from being contaminated. The Japanese government regulates and certifies processors and Japanese processed puffer fish meat has been exported to other countries, including the US, where a single importer sells it to restaurants.

Some puffer fish caught in the US have toxin and some don’t. Florida, for example, bans commercial and recreational fishing for puffer fish in most waters and these fish have toxin regardless of processing. North of Virginia, marine coastal puffer fish have not yet been shown to have toxin, but neither has systematic monitoring assured all are toxin free. The FDA guidance on eating puffer fish says it is OK to eat puffer fish if you know it has been properly prepared or comes from the mid-Atlantic region of the US.

Our advice is this. If you eat a puffer fish you should place yourself immediately under the care of a doctor: a psychiatrist.

Comments

  1. #1 Niobe
    October 27, 2007

    Puffer fish are awesome to encounter when diving, they are actually pretty playful and intruiged.

    The Japanese are not much fun to encounter when diving though.

  2. #2 Janne
    October 27, 2007

    Regarding Fugu, the Japanese puffer fish, it’s worth noting three facts:

    * the most dangerous food in Japan, as measured by fatalities, is not Fugu, not by a long shot. By far, the big killer is mochi – sticky rice balls. They’re eaten by most people on New Year as part of a traditional soup, and the very sticky consistency (think golfball-sized gluestick ball with nice flavour) means there’s dozens of elderly people choking to death on them every year. The news broadcasts report on the fatalities and near-misses around the second or third of January every year.

    * There are a few fatalities every year from eating Fugu; typically half a dozen or less. These are always, invariably, from some idiot sports fisherman thinking he knows how to clean a pufferfish from looking at a diagram in a book, botching the process, and killing himself and his macho pals. Fatalities from eating fish from a licensed place simply is unheard of; I don’t know of a single incident in recent times, and it’s not a very rare dish either.

    * Last, the reality of fugu is that it’s kind of cool in a “has an aura of risk without any actual danger” to it, but it’s basically a firm white-meat fish with not much taste, served in paper-thin slices for rather too much money for it to be worth it. You basically pay a lot for the thrill and the taste of the soy-based dipping sauce.

    Old picture of fugu for sale:

    http://www.lucs.lu.se/people/jan.moren/log/full_WholeFugu.jpg

  3. #3 qetzal
    October 27, 2007

    Not all puffer fish have toxin.

    I didn’t realize that. From your description, I guessed that the toxin probably comes from something the fish eat, and it gets concentrated in the specific tissues. Sure enough, this site says the toxin probably originates in bacteria.

    Interestingly, tetrodotoxin is apparently also the reason the Australian blue-ringed octopus is so famously deadly.

  4. #4 glock
    October 27, 2007

    Wow.
    Growing up in NJ my dad had a boat and we usually threw blowfish back when caught. Then, one summer I had a Boyscout campout near Sandy Hook with about 50 kids. There were fishing poles for us to use, and at low tide the water was teeming with “blowfish”. Poor suckers were easy to catch and one of the adults said they were “the chicken of the sea” and that he would clean all we caught…..
    Welllll, 2 or 3 garbage cans full, and many hours of cleaning later, we all had the most amazingly good campfire-on-the-beach fishfry, with the best tasting, most tender, delicate, fish I’d ever eaten- nor forgotten. Everyone survived.

    Even more fun than riding our bikes behind the DDT foggers…. without helmets. ;-)

  5. #5 anon
    October 27, 2007

    And here is my problem with some health and safety professionals. They always seem to be people who have no idea about what they are really talking about, telling other people who actually know the risks and safety measures necessary for living their own lives.

    With the current regulations in Japan, Fugu is perfectly safe when eaten by a licensed professional. Most people who have died from it in the past are either vagrants eating the disposed fugu parts, or people who are too stupid to realize that there is a reason it takes many years to become a licensed fugu chef.

    Public health in Japan found a way to deal with any possible Fugu health crisis was simply to strictly regulate the industry, not ban it. Banning it would likely have simply made matters much much worse.

    Also, Fugu is really not that amazing flavourwise, but has a nice texture I found.

  6. #6 bar
    October 27, 2007

    According to Wikipedia “sashimi (raw) fugu often causes intoxication, light-headedness, and numbness of the lips, and is often eaten for this reason”.

    I read (forget where) that sashimi fugu is eaten because of that drug high. The same source quoted that the Japanese health department required that restaurants licensed to sell sashimi fugu were sufficiently far apart that a customer could not readily walk from one to the next, to prevent inadvertent OD by inebriated epicureans.

  7. #7 revere
    October 27, 2007

    anon: Well, fine. You are a trusting sort. Us public health types know that things don’t always go the way you they are planned. If you are in Japan, bon apetit. If you are somewhere else, do what you want but don’t say I didn’t warn you that things in the food biz aren’t always as advertised and anglers aren’t always as smart as they think they are. I didn’t say anything about banning it, BTW.

  8. #8 Janne
    October 27, 2007

    bar, that is, well, not correct. First, I’ve never felt any tingling or intoxication and I’ve never heard anyone refer to such effects. Second, you can find places with several fugu restaurants right next to each other. You usually don’t of course, for the same reason you normally don’t find multiple okomiyaki places next to each other either – it’s not good for business.

  9. #9 bar
    October 28, 2007

    Janne:

    I found a few pages on the net that spoke of the tingling. Sample pages (stripped of the leading http:// so this post would not be delayed by Revere’s filters) are:

    en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pufferfish
    eugeneciurana.com/musings/sushi-eating-HOWTO.html#label_9
    http://www.asiafood.org/glossary_2.cfm?wordid=2648

    Perhaps the following might explain why this knowledge might escape most visitors (such as myself at one time) in Japan. “some highly trained chefs include a tiny bit of the toxin when they serve fugu. The toxin will create a prickly, numb feeling on the tongue.”

    from : http://www.planettokyo.com/index.cfm/fuseaction/detail/navid/23/cid/23/

  10. #10 RobT
    October 28, 2007

    My only bad experience with a pufferfish wasn’t in the eating.

    I was diving on the Great Barrier reef on a three day outing when I caught a big one underwater after it had puffed up. I was holding it by the tail with my left hand and trying to direct it with my right hand to “pose” for a photo for my dive buddy. This was completely unacceptable to the pufferfish and it objected by grabbing my right forefinger. At first there was a fairly gentle squeezing, but some species graze on coral and they have a hydraulic compression system in their jaw muscles for grinding coral. Mine was one of those.

    It proceeded to crush my forefinger behind the first knuckle, bone and all. Lots of blood. Not good to be leaking blood underwater with other fish around with jaws even worse than my pufferfish! And naturally, it wouldn’t let go, for what seemed an eternity.
    End of dive, beginning of a few days of painkillers.

    I think I’ll give fugu a miss. It would be just my luck…

  11. #11 Kfun
    June 22, 2010

    WOW..I knew they could cause death but me and my husband being very adventurous (ummm stupid) decided to clean one and eat it. We told friends in case something happened. I apparently trusted my husband that he knew what he was doing and obviously he did because we did not die or get any tingling sensation. The fish was good. This was a fish we caught in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Florida. I did not know they were banned. I also do not know how that redneck Florida boy of mine knew how to clean it. I had no idea it took years of training which he did NOT have. It was a thrill at the time and I was very trusting.
    Hmmmm he ended up divorcing me. I wonder if he was hoping it would kill me?