One of the more notorious items of Japanese cuisine has got to be fugu (pufferfish). It’s well known for its delicious taste and texture, its traditionally high price tag, and of course the lethal poison stored in its meat.
In Japan’s fugu industry, February 9 is known as “Fugu Day” in yet another Japanese pun-inspired holiday. This Fugu Day in particular has seen some rock-bottom prices for the once pricey fish thanks largely to government deregulation. But is it safe?
The poison inside fugu is called tetrodotoxin. It’s about 100 times more deadly than potassium cyanide, the poison of choice for secret agents and suicide cults. It affects the nervous system and disrupts the body’s ability to breathe and regulate its heart.
A lethal dose of tetrodotoxin will first reveal itself as a slight numbness in the tongue and lips. Then difficulty breathing and headaches will set in. Death could occur anywhere from 20 minutes to 8 hours of the onset of symptoms. The time leading up to death the victim is completely conscious but largely paralyzed.
Sounds delicious, doesn’t it?
■ Handle with care
Of course, handling such a potentially deadly fish for human consumption requires an intricate knowledge of them. There are several species of pufferfish, many of which look nearly identical yet they all store poison in different locations of the body. A highly skilled fugu chef needs to know exactly what kind of fugu they’re dealing with before cutting.
First a prospective fugu chef must complete either two-years of regular restaurant experience or one year of training in a culinary training institution. From there they must complete a written exam. After that, they then have to gain two years’ experience working in a restaurant under the guidance of a licensed fugu chef. Finally, they are given a written and practical exam to receive their license.
With such a rigorous training program, it’s understandable why fugu used to be an expensive dish. So why are we now seeing prices like these?
▼ Fugu Nigirizushi: 100 yen (US$1), Fried Fugu: 200 yen ($2), Fugu Tempura Gunkanmaki: 200 yen ($2)
▼ Fugu sashimi 29 yen ($0.28)
■ Crazy Larry’s Fugu Emporium, where prices are insane!
The price drop began to happen somewhere around the end of October 2012. This is when the government loosened the restrictions over who can handle fugu meat. If certain conditions are met, a food service company may sell processed pufferfish.
In addition to this, techniques in blowfish farming have improved dramatically in recent years. Torafugu (Tiger Pufferfish) once fetched a high price when only 100 tons of it could be caught in the wild per year. However, aquaculture in Japan now boasts 4,000 tons of the fish annually.
▼ 6 Pieces of dried fugu for 458 yen ($4.47) on Amazon
■ Playing the odds
While fugu is now more plentiful than ever and in hands of more and more retailers, the question remains: Is it safe?
During an investigation of licensed vendors in Japan, out of 470 fugu orders, 29 were found to have “insufficient removal of toxic sites.” This survey was conducted in 2011, before the deregulation. Of course, “insufficient removal” of poison is a far cry from a lethal dose of it, but in the period from 2003 to 2012, there were 299 cases of fugu poisoning resulting in 15 deaths.
Going by simple numbers we can assume this new wave of blowfish sales will result in more incidents overall but it’s hard to say if it will be disproportionately so. As it stood in 2012 you would be about three thousand times more likely to die in a traffic accident than from eating pufferfish. Even a significant increase in fugu risk would be relatively mild to other dangers in life.
However, if you want to avoid dying in a traffic accident then stay out of traffic and if you want to be perfectly safe from tetrodotoxin then stay completely away from fugu. It is delicious, but if you go through life without ever trying it, don’t worry. The world’s still full of delicious food.