Ten patrons of a restaurant in Kisai, Japan were diagnosed with cholera after eating sashimi at the Shozaburo restaurant last week, according to an item in the Mainichi Daily News. Eight of the victims needed treatment for their diarrhea and nausea; three were hospitalized.
My initial exposure to sushi and sashimi was in 1981, when I visited Japan for the first time. I have eaten sushi on several occasions since then, usually when dining with Japanese colleagues either in the United States or Canada, but have never felt comfortable with the dish – except in Japan.
The rest of the world apparently doesn't share my qualms. Sushi is everywhere – including the local supermarket fish counter.
Last month, chefs at an international restaurant summit in Tokyo warned about the dangers of the sushi craze. They are worried that "amateur" sushi chefs are not handling raw fish correctly, and are exposing sushi bar patrons to the risk of food poisoning from bacteria and parasitic worms.
This problem is not new. In 2003, the Australian government analyzed 55 samples of sushi from 14 different establishments. They found marginal or unsatisfactory levels of Staphylococcus aureus in 8 of the samples, excessive E. coli in 4, Listeria monocytogenes in 7, and marginal or unsatisfactory numbers of Bacillus cereus in 9 samples.
Much of the risk associated with sushi and sashimi appears to relate to improper handling and inattention to good sanitation practices. This month's Journal of Food Protection carries a research report from Germany that compares fresh sushi prepared in sushi bars with frozen sushi available in supermarket freezer aisles.
The frozen sushi won the comparison hands-down – at least as far as microbiological safety was concerned. Staphylococcus aureus, E. coli and Listeria monocytogenes were all found more often in the fresh items from sushi bars than in the frozen sushi.
I have no plans to return to Japan in the near future. But when I do, I'll probably give the sushi a miss – even in its place of birth.
The Empty Chair
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