Grilled as you like it

Poison-free fugu? May 3, 2008

Filed under: Eating,Japan,Travel — laurel @ 1:03 pm
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Should diners in Japan be able to take the Homer Simpson approach (“Come on pal, FUGU ME!”) to fugu liver, now reportedly available poison-free?

fugu in a tank (I can’t help thinking these fish always look like they’re smiling) – a fugu restaurant in Osaka

An article in last weekend’s Asahi Shimbun IHT says that Japanese fish farmers have developed a method for raising poison-free fugu and that they can now raise the harmless fish on a commercial scale. Some are pushing to loosen the laws that make it illegal to sell fugu liver now that nonpoisonous fugu liver can be obtained, while others insist that it is too soon to say if the farmed fish are really safe to eat. It seems that Japanese food suppliers track the origin of foods, particularly fresh products such as fish, meats, fruits, and vegetables. So it would probably be safe to have a supply of farmed, nonpoisonous fugu, and a separate supplies of wild and farmed possibly poisonous fugu whose livers would still need to be removed to eliminate the risk of poisoning.

However, even here, there have been several food safety scandals recently. While many of the high profile cases focused on imported foods such as gyoza and spinach from China and beef from the United States, many others have involved well known Japanese food producers falsifying production and expiry dates or lying about the ingredients in their products. Imagine the consequences if just one poisonous fish where somehow mistaken for a nonpoisonous one. Perhaps it is impossible to declare even the nonpoisonous farmed fugu completely safe, but maybe it could be something that customers could enjoy at their own risk.
On the other hand, I would blanch at the thought of such allowances being made in the United States. It seems that food safety back at home is given second consideration after price and convenience. The huge scale of production and distribution, along with the recent beef recall, the incident of banned beef parts being shipped to Japan (above), and the inability of producers to keep GE corn out of the human food supply in the 90s (‘Well, it turns out we’ve been eating it with no problems, so we might as well approve it for human consumption…’) lead me to insist that while it might be feasible to offer nonpoisonous fugu livers in Japan, such a thing should never be allowed in the United States.

“poison… poison… tasty fish!”

Here’s the article from the Saturday-Sunday, April 26-27 issue of the Asahi Shimbun IHT by Norimitsu Onishi:

Shimonoseki, Japan: Poison has been as integral to fugu, the deadly puffer fish prized by Japanese gourmands, as the savor of its pricey meat. So consider fugu, but poison free.

Thanks to advances in fugu research and farming, Japanese fish farmers are now mass-producing poison-free fugu as harmless as goldfish. Most important, they have taken the poison out of fugu’s liver – considered both its most delicious and potentially lethal part, one whose consumption has left countless Japanese dead over the centuries.

The story, though, does not end with sushi lovers worldwide sampling fugu foie gras, which connoisseurs regard as more exquisite than the goose’s, entails none of the ethical dilemmas of force-feeding and is chock full of healthful omega-3 fatty acids, or DHA. Instead, politically powerful, entrenched fugu interests, tapping into lingering fear over a fish so identified with poison, are fighting to make sure that the sale of fugu liver remains illegal.

But already, a prefecture in Kyushu, south of here, defiantly serves it. A town in another prefecture applied to be designated a special farmed fugu liver eating zone. And a group of scientists spreading awareness of farmed fugu liver across Japan served it last month at a Tokyo tasting event atended by some 40 chefs and restaurant-related businessmen. All ate. All survived.

“We won’t approve it,” Hisashi Matsumura, the president of the Shimonoseki Fugu Association and vice president of the Shimonoseki Fugu Association and vice president of the National Fugu Association, said of the legalization of fugu liver. “It’s O.K., let them go head. We’re not engaing in this irrelevant discussion. If Shimonoseki reacted in a loud voice – ‘Hey!’ – there could be unexpected consequences.”

Acting as a giant clearinghouse, this port city in western Japan imports fugu from all over Japan and China, guts it and expertly removes the liver and other poisonous parts before shipping it throughout Japan and around the world. Though its share has fallen in recent years, it still controls about half of Japan’s fugu market.

But Shimonoseki’s business, predicated on the fact that fugu is poisonous, now faces an even greater threat with the poison-free, farmed fugu, or, specifically, its liver.

Matsumura spoke recently inside his large office at the fugu market here just after the daily 3:20 a.m. auction, at times sounding like a man trying to stamp out unrest in the provinces, daring them to “go ahead” and waving them away as “a minority.”

“Even if they talk about it in Edo,” he said, using the ancient name for Tokyo, “no matter where they talk about it, it won’t matter.” Matsumura said fugu liver was simply too dangerous. But researchers and fish farmers said Shimonoseki opposed the legalization of farmed fugu liver simply because it feared losing its grip on the fugu market. Endorsing farmed fugu liver was tantamount to acknowledging that fugu could be farmed totally poison free – and that Shimonoseki’s role had become obsolete. Right now, Shimonoseki processes even farmed nonpoisonous fugu, because health authorities have yet to officially recognize that fugu can be made poison free.

Shionoseki’s opposition, researchers and fish farmers said, was squelching the opening of new markets and depriving gourmands the chance of eating fugu foi gras.

“They want to protect their vested interests,” said Tamao Noguchi, a marine toxin specialist at Tokyo Healthcare University and a leading fugu expert. “They won’t accept this for a long, long time.”

It was Noguchi who, over eight years, completed a scientific study underpinning what two decades of fish farming in Japan had already shown: that fugu could be made poison free by strictly controlling its feed.

Decades earlier, another Japanese scientist had identified fugu’s poison as tetrodotoxin, a powerful neurotoxin that leaves victims mentally aware while they suffer paralysis and, in the worst cases, die of heart failure or suffocation. There is no known antidote.

Researchers surmised that fugu got the toxin by eating star fish, shells and other animals down the food chain carrying tetrodotoxin-laden bacteria, though they did not rule out the possibility that fugu produced the toxin on its own.

In the last three decades, though, researchers in Japan, the United States and elsewhere found that a wide range of animals, ranging from newts to flatworms and frogs to octopuses, also had the same tetrodotoxin. The animals, they concluded, did not produce the toxin but had ingested it; they had developed immunity to the toxin, which came in handy to repel enemies or, in the case of fugu, to protect the eggs it laid.

By 2008, in seven prefectures in Japan, Noguchi had tested a total of more than 7,000 fugu that had been given only feed free of the tetrodotoxin-laden bacteria. Not one was poisonous.

“When it wasn’t known where fugu’s poison came from, the mystery made for better conversation,” Noguchi said. “Especially if alcohol came into the mix, the conversation became livelier. So, in effect, we took the romance out of fugu.

Indeed, fugu has appearing in the haiku of Basho, Japan’s greatest poet, and in the animated U.S. TV series “The Simpsons,” in an episode in which Homer accidentally eats poisonous fugu and has 24 hours to live.

For centuries, Japanese had been drawn to fugu despite, or perhaps because of, its poison. Expert chefs were able to separate the liver and other poisonous parts from the rest of the fish; only one third of all wild fugu have enough poison to kill. So chefs served liver after cleansing it of its poison through a traditional method; sometimes a trace of poison remained, not enough to kill, but enough to thrill by slightly numbing the lips.

Despite the precautions, many Japanese kept dying from fugu. After losing a number of soldiers to a fugu massacre, Hideyoshi, the 16th centrury warlord who unified Japan, banned it outright. But Japanese kept eating it surreptitiously, and the popularity of fugu grew over the following centuries. Eventually, modern Japan’s first prime minister, Hirobumi Ito, was said to have made it legal again in 1888.

Yet fugu kept killing Japanese, including, in 1975, a kabuki actor recognized as a “living national treasure” by the Japanese government. A famous gourmand, the actor, Bando Mitsugoro 8th, died seven hours after eating four potions of fugu liver at an exclusive restaurant in Kyoto.

Partly in response, the Ministry of Health made fugu liver illegal across the land. The number of annual deaths dropped so that nowadays only a few Japanese die every year, not from eating it in restaurants but from fugu they have caught fishing.

The death rate also remains low because Japanese are increasingly eating the nonpoisonous farmed variety that, thanks to advances in fish farming, has become almost as tasty as the wild kind. Because of overfishing, wild fugu accounts for merely 10 percent of the total now sold in Japan; the rest is farmed, though not all farmed fugu is poison free.

In Yobuko, a port town south of here, one fugu farmer, Yoshihisa Ohta, has raised nonpoisonous fugu for the past eight years and serves its liver at a restaurant – though only if the customer asks for it, so as not to break the law.

“It’d be such a waste to throw away something this delicious,” said Yukio Kidera, who was having lunch, including fugu liver, at the restaurant recently.

Ohta was one of the leaders of a campaign to have a nearby town, Ureshino, declared a special fugu liver eating zone. The application was rejected in 2005 by the Ministry of Health, citing insufficient data about the toxification of fugu and methods to prevent it in farming.

Ohta, as well as researchers like Noguchi, argues the real reason was to protect the jobs of licensed fugu chefs and businesses in Shimonoseki. They pointed out that the Shimonoseki Fugu Association has strong links with local politicians, including Shinzo Abe, the former prime minister.

“Shimonoseki is, after all, Mr. Abe’s constituency,” Ohta said.

(Abe’s office declined comment.) Makoto Tanaka, the official responsible for fugu at the Ministry of Health, denied any political or economic reasons behind the application’s rejection or the continued ban on fugu liver.

“People’s lives are at stake,” Tanaka said.

Still, undermining arguments that farmed fugu liver is unsafe is the fact that one prefecture south of here, Oita, is famous for serving it in its fugu restaurants. No one has ever been poisoned from eating it. The health authorities in Tokyo and Oita are widely believed to turn a blind eye to the fugu lawbreakers there.

“That’s outrageous!” Tanaka said with a hearty laugh about the sale of liver in Oita, professing to know nothing about it.

In Usuki, the town most famous for fugu in Oita, Masataka Kinashi, the head of the tourism association and a fugu dealer himself, suddenly stared down at his desk when asked about the widespread sale of fugu liver there.

“Officially, you can never eat it here,” Kinashi said with a laugh.

“Well, it’s not that you can’t eat it, but, no, you can’t eat it. That’s the only answer I can give you.”

The reality is, as lunch and dinner at two restaurants there showed, fugu liver may not be listed on the menus but is served openly.

All the fugu liver served in Usuki comes from nonpoisonous farmed fugu, some of which is shipped from none other than Shimonoseki.


4 Responses to “Poison-free fugu?”

  1. Hello nice to meet you.
    KO-N-NI-CHI-WA (^_^)v
    I am Japanese.
    I saw your wonderful site.
    Please link to this site !

  2. chapan Says:

    Very nice article. You may find an article at the link below
    also very interesting.




  3. cat barrett Says:


  4. tito Says:


    can anyone direct me to a direction where i can find fugu farming related material?


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