Sushi and Food Safety
We have learned that the main issues that require our attention are food-borne illnesses, food allergies, mercury, and other contaminants. While the information we are presenting about these issues is based on our most current research, everyone should, of course, consult with their physician about any dietary concerns, especially in the case of sensitive populations, such as pregnant women or small children.
Food-borne illnesses can be caused by most foods, but are of particular concern with raw or undercooked seafood, meat, and poultry. Most of the seafood we serve is raw; only our lobster, crab, and eel are fully cooked, and our Nozawa-style shrimp are quickly — but not fully — cooked. We take care to reduce the risk of food-borne illnesses, but it is still possible to become ill from eating our food. Because the effects of food-borne illness can be greater for pregnant women, we recommend that pregnant women not eat raw or undercooked foods, including those served at SUGARFISH.
Mercury consumption is also of concern for pregnant and nursing mothers and small children. It is believed that excessive exposure to mercury, or precisely, methylmercury, can damage the development of the nervous system in unborn and small children. There is great debate on both what is excessive and what are the effects of mercury. In 2004, the FDA and EPA issued a joint advisory stating that 12 ounces of low-mercury fish is the maximum amount pregnant women, nursing mothers, and small children should consume per week. Tilefish, swordfish, king mackerel, and shark are considered high-mercury species and should be avoided. While tuna was not specifically addressed in the report, the advisory for mercury-sensitive populations was to limit the consumption of albacore tuna to no more than 6 ounces per week.
In 2010 and again in 2011, we tested each species of our fish and shellfish believed to contain methylmercury. (Virtually all ocean fish contain some level of methylmercury.) In both sets of tests, our fish showed very low levels, in fact much lower than the government’s published averages. Specifically, our halibut, salmon, and yellowtail, all species considered to be low in mercury, tested below the machines ability to detect it, or below 0.05 parts per million (ppm). In 2010, our tuna tested at 0.15 ppm, or approximately seven times below then FDA limit of 1.0 ppm. Our tuna and albacore tested most recently at 0.09 and 0.08 ppm, respectively, several times below the FDA published averages for their species and more than ten times below the FDA’s limit.
Even with the low levels detected, we believe sensitive populations (pregnant and nursing women and small children) should never exceed the government’s fish consumption guidelines of twelve ounces a week, with no more than six ounces of these from albacore. We believe that consuming these guideline amounts of fish could lead to “elevated” mercury levels in some people. There is debate about the relevance and health impact of elevated mercury scores; there is only agreement that medical care should be sought when mercury score results reach toxic levels.
We analyze our salmon for PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls). While our research shows that this may now be uncommon, in the past salmon and other fish were farmed or caught in areas contaminated with industrial emissions. Our salmon, from Norway, showed no detectable levels of PCBs in our 2010 or 2011 tests.
We test certain species of our fish and shellfish for added phosphates and for the use of antibiotics. Our fish have not tested positive in either of these tests.
An issue of more recent concern is fallout from the Japanese nuclear disaster. We source two types of fish, seaweed, some condiments, as well as our beer, tea and sake from Japan. Our yellowtail and seaweed comes from over 700 miles to the southwest of Fukushima, and our large scallops come from about 350 miles to the northeast. The US government believes that the food from these areas are safe, and performs selective testing of the food products imported from these areas of Japan into the US. If we find information that leads us to believe that the food we serve is affected by the fallout from the disaster, we will stop serving it immediately.
In addition to environmental toxins, we also monitor the properties of the fish we serve. Escolar, a species of fish that sometimes appears on the menu at SUGARFISH, can cause an allergic-like reaction in many people. While we don’t serve it often, we offer it at times because it is a rich, delicious, and buttery fish. It contains a high amount of wax esters that our stomachs cannot digest. Some people may have a strong gastrointestinal reaction, also known as keiorrhea, to these esters. If you have ever had such a reaction or are concerned about how your stomach may react, please do not eat escolar. The common recommendation we have researched is that you should eat no more than 5 or 6 ounces at one time. At SUGARFISH, we limit the serving size to less than one ounce per person, and we will not serve escolar to children. We also request that every person who orders escolar be informed by reviewing this information. While we believe that our patrons should not experience any reactions with our small serving size, we cannot be sure.
More and more people are becoming aware of their sensitivities to different foods. If you have a food allergy, please tell your server. We have safety procedures in our kitchen for guests with allergies, but please understand that if, for instance, you are allergic to shellfish, shellfish is always present in our kitchen. For those allergic to gluten, our house-made soy and ponzu sauces contain gluten.