Is Sushi Really Safe to Eat?

You can see it pretty much everywhere these days. In our grocery stores, in restaurants, even in corner stores! Sushi is an extremely favored food that has become one of the more popular choices in how Americans enjoy their seafood today. This Japanese cuisine favorite can be a very quick and easy meal to make with delicious, umami flavors that burst on the tongue.

But is it safe to eat? Mercury, parasites, foodborne illnesses are a few of the associated health risks that often stem from eating sushi.

Science and environmental concerns are helping the seafood industry to make better, cleaner, healthier fisheries, and fishing choices, but not all our seafood sources are guaranteed to be sourced from places like this and not all sushi is always prepared safely.

The name, “sushi,” while referring to the small balls or rolls of rice-wine vinegar flavored cold cooked rice has become a blanket name for any rice rolls wrapped in seaweed or garnished with various vegetables, eggs, raw fish, cooked fish, and other foods. Some sushi varieties are cooked, but most sushi feature pieces of raw fish and Sashimi is raw fish served as-is or with a selection of sauces, rice, and so on.

How do we know for sure if it is safe to eat? Of course, the best way to avoid any complications is to not to eat sushi. But it has become such a delicious favorite that many do not wish to cut it out of their meals.

So how can you tell what sushi or sashimi is safe to consume? While it is not entirely possible to avoid subpar fish every single time, there are a few things you can check for to make sure the sushi you are about to eat is at its freshest, and, ultimately, safest.

The Smell

There should not be any fishy scent to your sushi. Fresh fish should have no scent at all, and neither should the facility creating the sushi. A clean, odorless sushi facility is always an excellent clue that the staff of the market, restaurant or grocer cares about food safety and excellent quality. World-famous sushi chef Hidekazu Tojo was quoted as saying, “a good sushi restaurant should smell like cucumber or watermelon,” but never fish.

The Look

Take a moment to look at pieces of sushi either being made or sushi already made and offered and pay special attention to the fish flesh itself. Fish in or on sushi should be shiny and translucent. There shouldn’t be any milky slime at all on a good, healthy piece of fish. If you see a piece of fish in your sashimi or on your sushi that appears dull looking or slimy that’s a major indication that the fish is off.

The whiteness and moisture in the rice as well as how crisp the nori (seaweed) is can also tell how fresh the sushi is.

When it comes to tuna sushi, keep in mind that looks can be deceiving, a common practice in some food industries is to gas tuna with carbon monoxide to make it look pink. You’ll want to look for any signs of the tuna browning along the edges. If you spot any, opt for a veggie roll instead.

How it Feels

If you can’t smell it, and it doesn’t look dull or slimy, you can always touch the sashimi or sushi as it’s delivered to your table or ask the butcher to press a finger on the fish he is using to create your sushi if possible. Excellent, very fresh fish, when pressed with a finger, should spring back immediately.

The Taste

If your sushi or sashimi did not pass any of the above tests—it had a smell, or it looked dull or it didn’t spring back when touched, don’t eat it! You shouldn’t be tasting a piece of sushi that doesn’t pass any of these.

If you purchase pre-packaged sushi from a grocery store, market or anywhere else, always double-check the expiration dates and do not be afraid to ask staff when it was prepared.

These tips can help you avoid eating questionable sushi—but are there dangers lurking that can’t be seen, smelled or touched when eating raw fish? Are there some people who are more at risk when eating sushi and sashimi than others?

The most common dangers in eating badly prepared sushi:

Parasites - A good sushi restaurant, market, or sushi serving place will ensure that they flash freeze their fish at a solid temp of -35°F and store it that way in a commercial freezer for at least 15 hours or more. At this temperature, if there were any parasites, they wouldn’t be able to survive the extreme temperature. Flash-frozen fish kills many of the dangers such as tapeworms and anisakiasis (a parasitic disease caused by the anisakid nematodes, or worms, that can invade the stomach wall or intestines.)

Vibrio Vulnificus - This bacterium is estimated by the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention to cause roughly 205 infections each year nationwide. This bacterium is sometimes incorrectly referred to as, “flesh-eating bacteria,” and is one of 12 species that cause illness in humans. 80% of infections happen through May and October, when coastal waters are warmest and mostly result from eating infected shellfish, with oysters being the most usual culprit.

Salmonella - The most common food-poisoning bacteria, Salmonella, may also be found in improperly prepared sushi or sashimi. It’s less likely to happen with raw fish than it is with raw chicken or beef, but there is a risk of contamination when meats are prepared in the same area or near.

Who should not risk eating sushi?

Dietitians and doctors alike tend to agree that if you are pregnant, trying to get pregnant or breastfeeding, you should consider removing sushi or sashimi from your menu to be entirely safe.

Fish to Avoid

If possible, there are a few species of fish to avoid helping you lower any dangers associated with eating improperly prepared fish for sushi:

  • Shellfish during May and October: Shrimp, crab, lobster, clam, scallop, conch, prawn, or cockle.
  • Mackerel pike, or sanma. Freshwater fish should be avoided when ordering, as they are more likely to have parasites compared to farmed fish.
  • Bluefin tuna, not only because it is still being depleted and overfished and at risk of going extinct, but tuna in general. The mercury content in tuna can be especially harmful to pregnant, breastfeeding, or women attempting to get pregnant.
  • Actual crab. Generally, sushi restaurants will use surimi crab or Pollak fish dyed to look like a crab, also known as imitation crab. This is safe. But fresh, real crab meat used in sushi or sashimi could be a huge risk of shellfish poisoning whether the crab is cooked or raw.
  • White Tuna is often swapped with an inferior fish call escolar. Escolar is a risky fish to eat, as it leads to serious digestive issues. It’s estimated that close to 59% of white tuna dishes served at sushi restaurants are not white tuna.

Now that you’re armed with this knowledge on the dangers of eating sushi and exactly what to look out for, you’re more than ready to go out and enjoy a safe sushi dinner. There’s still plenty of delicious creations left on the menu for you to eat whether out at your favorite sushi place or making it at home.