Sushi and Food Safety

Sushi & Food Safety

Sushi and Food Safety 

We understand that food safety is a concern to many people, which is why we are informing our guests about food issues such as foodborne illnesses, food allergies, and natural or human-made environmental contaminants. Our main focus is on methylmercury and the contaminants stemming from Fukushima.  (Please note that it’s always best to consult your physician to find out what dietary choices are right for you.)

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

While mercury consumption can be a concern for people in general, it is of specific concern for pregnant and nursing mothers and small children. Excessive exposure to mercury may compromise the development of the nervous system in unborn and small children. There is debate on the effects of mercury and what constitutes excessive consumption. The FDA and EPA have jointly advised that pregnant women, nursing mothers, and small children should consume no more than twelve ounces of low-mercury fish per week. Although tuna was not specifically addressed in the report, the advisory for mercury-sensitive populations is to limit the consumption of albacore tuna to no more than six ounces per week.

Virtually all ocean fish contain some level of methylmercury. The FDA sets a limit for human consumption at 1.0 part per million (ppm) of methylmercury in fish and shellfish. Since 2010, we have tested samples of a variety of our fish and shellfish once or twice each year. The results have been consistently less than one-half of the FDA’s limit. Our average scores from 2010 to today are less than 0.10 ppm for our salmon, crab, and lobster; less than 0.20 ppm for our halibut, albacore, yellowtail, and snapper; and less than 0.35 ppm for our tuna and fatty tuna.

Despite SUGARFISH’s low levels of mercury, mercury-sensi­tive individuals (pregnant and nursing women and small children) should not exceed the government’s fish consumption guidelines (no more than twelve ounces a week, with no more than six ounces of albacore). We believe that consuming these guideline amounts of fish could lead to “elevated” mercury levels in some people.

An individual’s mercury level can be determined with a blood test. While there is debate about the health impact of elevated mercury test scores, defined as levels above 10, there is an agreement that levels above 50 are be considered toxic. Exposure to mercury needs to be reduced. Some doctors believe that you should stop eating fish if your scores are at all elevated. Our research indicates that you should consult with a physician who has expertise in mercury and who can make specific recommendations for you.

We analyze our salmon for PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls). At the same time, 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, an Atlantic King Salmon that comes from Scotland, has shown no detectable levels of PCBs in every annual test we have performed since 2010 (note: we did not test our salmon in 2012).

We test certain species of our fish and shellfish for added phosphates and the use of antibiotics. Our fish have not tested positive in either of these tests.


Guests may be concerned about the possibility of residual radiation in food as a result of Fukushima. However, the FDA currently has no evidence that the levels of radionuclides from Fukushima present in the U.S food supply pose a public health concern. The FDA performs selective testing on food products from Japan and has concluded that the food that is imported from the area is safe. As a result, the FDA is not advising consumers to alter their consumption of specific foods, including seafood, whether imported from Japan or produced domestically.


An independent research lab in Northern California indicated that Pacific Bluefin tuna, particularly small fish from the Pacific coast of the US, and “bottom fish” from the east coast of Japan are what concerned consumers may want to avoid. We do not serve and have not served, these items at our restaurants.

We do, however, serve many Japanese items at our restaurants, including our large scallops, yellowtail, unagi, seaweed, beer, tea, sake, and some condiments.  Specifically, our yellowtail and seaweed come from over 700 miles to the southwest of Fukushima, and our large scallops come from about 350 miles to the northeast.

The test results

We decided to supplement these official findings with radiation testing of our own. In August 2012, we engaged an independent laboratory to test our large scallops for cesium-137 and cesium-134.

In October 2013, we had our albacore, blue crab, large scallops, yellowtail, tuna, shrimp, unagi, and seaweed, all sourced from the Pacific Ocean, tested. We also sent out four samples of items that frequently appear on Nozawa Bar’s daily menu and are sourced from Japanese waters — octopus, jellyfish, skipjack tuna, and amberjack — to be tested for radiation.

Radiation was not detected in any of our samples, with a reporting limit of 1.0 pCi/g (average picocuries per gram, a standard measurement for cesium).  1.0 pCi/g is 10 times less than the threshold the FDA sets for the level of concern in baby food. We will continue to rely on our government to protect the food supply but we will also continue to supplement their findings with our independent radiation testing as we think appropriate.

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.

If you have a food allergy, please tell your server. Please let us know about any food allergies. At the same time, we take allergies seriously and have allergy procedures in place; different forms of allergens are present in our kitchen, and cross-contamination is always possible.  We love serving all of our guests, but if you have a severe allergy, we recommend not eating in our restaurant.

For those allergic to gluten, our house-made soy and ponzu sauces contain gluten.