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Monday, March 5, 2012

Fugo Chef Regulations Relax, Paralyzations Set To Increase

File this under: Disaster Waiting To Happen

Okay, while this disaster-to-be is hardly in the same scale as an earthquake or tsunami or nuclear meltdown, it does still smack of government incompetence.

Fugu, which means 'river pig' in Japanese, is a puffer fish. Anyone who knows anything of Japanese food may have heard of the killer meal. Prepared by expert chefs who have spent decades working with it, the fugu is a tasty but possibly dangerous fish usually only available at the more expensive Japanese restaurants.

Fugu ovaries, liver and other internal organs contain enough poison to be lethal, which is why Tokyo and other prefectures have licensing stiff requirements to prepare and serve it, as the fugu venom, or tetrodotoxin, is a neurotoxin, and a small dose of one to two-miligrams can kill a person, or at the very least cause paralysis. It is 1,200 times more potent than cyanide.

Nationwide in Japan, there were 338 food poisoning cases in Japan related to fugu consumption that killed 23 people from 2000 to 2009.

The fugu venom is a sodium channel blocker that paralyzes the muscles while the victim stays fully conscious. If the dose is strong enough, the paralysis will eventually stymie the breathing ability of the victim causing death from asphyxiation. And hey, there is no antidote, with the standard treatment being to keep the victim stable enough for the body to metabolize the poison out via excretion.

Apparently, fish farmers have developed a poison-free fugu, like in Usuki-machi (Town of Usuki) in Oita-ken (Oita Prefecture). To be honest, I feel the main allure in eating the ugly little fish is the fact that one could die! I ate a fugu and survived! I'm a brave person!

But, Tokyo's metropolitan government is looking by the end of March 2012 to relax the requirements on chefs, allowing unlicensed chefs to process and sell the poisonous puffer fish as early as October 2012.

Japan - It's A Wonderful Rife is unsure what has spurred this on: Perhaps it was the fact that fugu eaters realized it was more expensive to get a meal in Tokyo than it was in other prefectures, and so they want to compete; or whether government officials just want to see if they can thin down the number of people living in Tokyo - and perhaps get rid of a few gaijin (foreigners) who are only too quick to try something dangerous.

This blog does see that while the cheap person or non-Japanese-speaking person may indeed head to a cheaper place to get fugu in Tokyo, but the smart consumer is always aware that one often gets what one pays for, and will maintain their current level of safety by only frequenting restaurants with properly licensed fugu chefs. 

And yet, Kondo Hironobu (surname first)  of Tokyo's food control department believes the fugu safety ordinance is outdated, as Tokyo residents will go to other prefectures to wrap their tongues the fish meat.

Okay... this part is funny for its irony: Kondo explains that another reason for relaxing chef skill certification on the preparation of fugu is because: "few diners have suffered any ill effects from eating fugu sold in Tokyo lately, (so) safety concerns have become less of an issue."

Yeah! That's because the chefs are properly trained and are highly skilled in how they prepare the damn fish! How about giving us some results on the number of people who have become paralyzed or died from ill-prepared fugu in other prefectures?

Adds Tokyo Fugu Cuisine Association chairman Makita Yuichi (surname first) who opposes the easing of the licensing requirements because of public safety concerns: "The revision will mean many more eateries will be allowed to sell fugu, and thus consumers may be able to eat cheap kinds of fugu at 'izakaya' (traditional Japanese inns) and other restaurants.

"But prices of high-quality fugu, such as tora (tiger) fugu, will not drop and will probably not be available at such cheap places," says Makita, who along with being chairman of the association also runs a high-end (that means 'expensive') fugu restaurant in Tokyo.

Despite the coming relaxation of fugu chef standards, the Tokyo fugu industry isn't going completely to hell in a creel basket.

Tokyo, and a few other prefectures still insist that sellers of mikaki fugu (the whole fugu puffer fish less the poisonous parts) must have a proper license.

While any fish shop can sell sliced or processed fugu if it is registered for sale at a public health center, Makita says that only the mikaki fugu is still restricted. From October 2012, mikaki fugu sellers must label their products as 'having venomous parts removed'.

Those who buy it, mainly restaurants, must only buy labeled fish and keep records of whom they buy it from, if they don't have any licensed fugu chefs on staff.

Of course, the higher-end restaurants will have a trained fugu chef on-board and will not purchase mikaki fugu, but would instead purchase a whole, intact fugu complete with poison parts - and would remove the parts themselves at the kitchen.

A dinner course of fugu sashimi, stewed fugu and other puffer fish cuisine typically costs between ¥5,000 ($61 Cdn/US) to ¥30,000 ($366 Cdn/US). Prices are high for natural tora fugu and but lower for other types. The fish are mainly caught in western Japan.

I have eaten stewed fugu. I imagined a slight tingling in my mouth, but nope, I kept on talking and breathing...

What was fugu like? No big deal, to be honest. Perhaps it's because I am a foreigner and lack the subtle tongue of the Japanese - though many people might say otherwise. Perhaps it's because I simply have not trained my senses to be able to discern the flavors... all I can tell you is that is was chewy, non-fatty white meat. Chewy like squid - only without the flavor. Perhaps the stew it was in was over-powering its natural fishy-flavor... no idea. Still.. I didn't die, and best of all, didn't have to pay for the meal as I was the guest of some people I met at a Tokyo drinking establishment the night previous. My only experience with fugu prior to this, was a single episode of The Simpson's, and I swear I Homere'd the high-class restaurant I was in by bellowing: "Fugu me!"IN that episode, an improperly trained chef tried to feed a hungry, hungry Homer.

Over the past 10 years, there have been seven fugu poisonings in Tokyo, though only one was within a licenesed Tokyo restaurant, and that was because back in November 2011, at the request of a customer, a Chuo Ward fugu chef served up the liver of the fish to someone who ate it and came down with food poisoning. As mentioned, the liver is a vast reservoir of fugo toxins. We can only hope the restaurant had the customer hanko a signature absolving the restaurant of any fault. 

As well, the lone fatality occurred after a common man caught, 'prepared, and ate the fish himself.

Sums up Kondo: "These are cases concerning careless people. We believe that fugu, if prepared by experienced chefs, is safe to eat."


  1. Ate it a few times. Not by choice. That was enough.. Am willing to try anything once (except gay and bi-sexual bondage). No big deal. Won't eat Fugu again. The reasons to not eat it just went up.

  2. I think we are in complete agreement, Mike!