Sushi: Is Raw Fish Dangerous?

salmon sushi

The word sushi is actually a Japanese word that once meant “sour tasting” to describe the salt and vinegar mix that was used to preserve fish in ancient Japan, before refrigeration.  Today however, it is only used to describe the rice and fish combinations we currently eat at our local sushi restaurants. But this isn’t a history lesson so lets figure this out. Is sushi safe?

Sushi has three potentially hazardous components, the fish, the rice, and the sushi chef.

Let’s first look at the fish. Parasites are associated with food that comes from the wild and there is nothing more wild than the ocean. Although, cooking remains the safest method to kill parasites it is acceptable to freeze fish if it will be eaten raw. The food code states that all fish that will be eaten raw or partially cooked must be frozen by the supplier before sold to the public. Certain species of tuna and farm raised fish are an exception to this rule. Even though freezing kills parasites it does not kill bacteria or or destroy viruses so strict temperature control and proper handling of the fish is also important.

Next, is the rice. In order for the rice to be easily worked with and have the right texture it has to be at a specific temperature. If it’s to cold it gets dry and crumbly or to hot and will cause it to become gummy, so the restaurant will keep it at room temperature.  This can be a problem because the spore forming bacteria (bacillus cerus) now has all of the conditions it requires to break out of its shell and grow in the rice.  It takes four hours for this to become unsafe so it is imperative that they discard any rice at room temperature before the four hours is up.

Finally, we have the sushi chef themselves. Personal hygiene is key here.  If the sushi chef is not washing their hands and cross contaminating in the sushi prep area, that is going to cause bacteria to grow in areas that it shouldn’t even be in.  Also, if they are not paying attention to their tools, such as the knife, the towel they tend to wipe their knife on or their prep surface these tools all become vehicles that can transfer bacteria onto the sushi. Continuously cleaning these tools and changing them out often is the best way to prevent the spread of disease . And finally, bathroom behaviors are important to prevent the spread of feces through hand contact with the sushi..  Make sure hands are being washed in the restroom and once again in the sushi prep area so faucets and door handles don’t contaminate their hands and an employee should never be in the restroom with their apron on.

Is sushi safe, well if the fish came from an approved source, the rice is being handled properly and the chef is trained on proper hygiene, cleaning and sanitizing then it is safe. Don’t be afraid to speak with your dollars and walk away from any place you have any doubts about because the last thing you need is to be sick.