Fukushima and Sushi: Is Raw Fish Safe to Eat?

Radiation isn't the only threat facing sushi. The delicacy has been heading toward extinction—and not only in Japan.


Food from Japan is now suspect. We know we wouldn't want to be eating the Japanese spinach or drinking the Japanese milk that has shown signs of radiation. The FDA has banned imports of dairy products and produce from the region around the Fukushima nuclear power plant, and will be scanning Japanese seafood. That's a wise precaution. But what about sushi in general—is it safe? Does it even have a future anymore as a cuisine?

From its origins as a snack of small seasonal fish and shellfish from local Japanese waters, sushi has become such a globalized, decentralized industry that in the West, most restaurants and takeout counters are serving mass-produced ingredients sourced from all over the planet. A typical piece of tuna might have been deep-frozen on a factory ship on the high seas weeks or months ago and never come close to Japan on its journey to North America. Salmon is purchased from aquaculture operators off Chile and Canada. The bulk of the freshwater eel referred to as unagi comes from industrial farms in China.

In the short term, any smart sushi restaurateurs in the West will be ensuring that their seafood comes from other places, and will advertise the fact. That shouldn't be too difficult.

Much of the fish listed on sushi menus as hamachi—often called yellowtail in English but more accurately referred to as amberjack—originates from floating pens off southwestern Japan. Even these fish farms, however, are hundreds of miles away from the stricken nuclear reactors northeast of Tokyo.

Higher-end sushi bars are more likely to incur the expense of regularly sourcing seafood directly from local Japanese fisheries, and most of this seafood passes through the central Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo. But should serious connoisseurs be worried?

A few days ago The New York Times interviewed Tsukiji's general manager and reported that before the earthquake, only about a tenth of the seafood sold there came from the northeast. Now think of the scenes we've been seeing of boats and ships resting on the tops of buildings. The tsunami wiped out the entire region's fishing and seafood distribution system. Fish from that part of Japan are no longer being caught, and won't be anytime soon.

In the short term, any smart sushi restaurateurs in the West will be ensuring that their seafood comes from other places, and will advertise the fact. That shouldn't be too difficult, even at higher-end establishments. Several chefs I know at top-quality sushi bars already prefer to serve a slice of fluke from, say, Long Island over similar fish from Japan anyway, because the fish is fresher.

Yet the public's perception will still be one of worry. In the longer term, can the global brand of sushi survive this?

Many of the artisanal skills associated with Japanese cuisine have already jumped the boundaries of Japan and taken root elsewhere. American farmers are growing high-quality sushi rice in California and exceptional wasabi in Oregon and North Carolina. A better alternative to Japanese farmed hamachi is being raised in Hawaii. And some of the finest Japanese miso in the world today is being produced not in Japan but in western Massachusetts.

The fact is, though, that sushi has already been facing an existential crisis for some time, well before the earthquake and its tragic aftermath. We've been devouring so many of those industrially-harvested low-end fish—tuna, salmon, hamachi, and unagi—and high-end trophy fish—bluefin in particular—that sushi hasn't been a sustainable cuisine.

And that's not to mention the health risks inherent in all these types of seafood that we've already been living with. All of these fish accumulate various kinds of toxins which we then ingest, from methyl mercury to PCBs to old-fashioned chemical pollutants.

The irony is that none of these types of seafood is a traditional Japanese sushi fish. With or without Japan's current disaster, if we want sushi to survive long-term we'll need to return to a more traditional approach to eating it. That means asking classically trained chefs and skilled fusionists alike to make the sort of food that people are demanding in other cuisines these days—sushi meals concocted from a wider variety of smaller, more seasonal, more naturally procured fish that are lower on the food chain, along with shellfish and vegetables that are more local in origin. These are more interesting to eat anyway.

Let's hope for the radiation leaks at Fukushima to be contained as soon as possible. After that, a situation that forces both the makers and eaters of sushi to diversify and simplify might not be a bad thing, taking sushi back to its roots—not necessarily to the particular fish of affected waters off Japan but to the philosophy that inspired the cuisine in the first place.

Image: avlxyz/flickr