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Sushi Grade Fish

Updated on March 1, 2014

The Truth About Sushi Grade Fish

Sushi grade fish is a term often bandied about, but what does it really mean? In this lens we will discuss what the terms sushi grade and sashimi grade seafood are, and how you can be sure to be safe when making sushi at home, or ordering sushi in a restaurant. While the phrase itself is bandied about often, the concept is not as simple as one would expect it to be. There actually is no legal definition for "sushi grade fish." But that doesn't mean that the idea of sushi grade fish is not in some way regulated. Read on for the seemingly complex rules that ensure that you are safe eating raw fish.

What is sushi grade fish?

A question often asked by sushi enthusiasts is the definition of sushi grade fish and what makes fish or other ocean foods "sushi grade." While it is obvious that you would not want to make sushi out of any old fish from the supermarket that has been sitting around and even touching other items, there does not seem to be a clear consensus of what makes a fish safe for consumption raw. Even restaurants and sashimi suppliers don't offer strict interpretations about regulations, and the reason for this is that the FDA does not have specific regulations for sushi that go beyond parasite destruction guarantee. That's right, while sushi grade fish means that fish are safe for consumption raw, there is no technical answer or certification process that allows you to label fish as sushi grade if you are a seafood purveyor. It is merely used as a marketing term to describe fish items which have been treated to reduce the chance of it containing parasites.

So what makes fish safe for sushi? While the FDA officially recommends that in order to reduce the risk of food borne parasites fish should always be cooked, it is possible to reduce the risks of sushi significantly as long as the parasites which live in fish are killed through a freezing process. This is a bit technical, but parasites are killed by 'freezing and storing seafood at -4°F (-20°C) or below for 7 days (total time), or freezing at -31°F (-35°C) or below until solid and storing at -31°F (-35°C) or below for 15 hours, or freezing at -31°F (-35°C) or below until solid and storing at -4°F (-20°C) or below for 24 hours". This means that your average kitchen freezer is insufficient for the job, and for fish to be rendered safe for raw consumption an industrial strength freezer is needed. Parasites are the biggest health concern when eating sushi, and they are the reason that sushi grade fish is saltwater rather than freshwater. Fresh water such as rivers and lakes is a much better breeding ground for parasites, and if you take out the cooking process to kill them, there is a much larger risk of contamination. Even with these precautions, there is still an FDA guideline that people who are most at risk in regards to food borne illness should stay away from sushi (this includes those who have lowered immune systems, for example). This is because while the majority of organisms are killed by the freezing process, it is almost impossible to assure 100% are killed, especially with harmful micro-organisms that can go into a dormant state but not be eradicated. Usually, your stomach acids will be sufficient to keep you safe, but if you are in the at risks groups as defined by the FDA, such as pregnant women, young children, the elderly or those with compromised immune systems or decreased stomach acidity, you have to be very careful when eating raw seafood.

Sushi grade fish is not an official term like "certified organic", for example, and retailers and restaurants must simply obey the broad FDA and health department requirements. This has actually many in the seafood industry to set up their own micro and chemical parameters with their products. A common technique to kill bacteria and parasites while preserving taste is flash freezing, which is impossible to do in a conventional freezer due to the necessity for extremely low temperature to freeze the fish almost instantly. In fact, many ships that fish for tuna and other common sushi fishes contain flash freezing storage containers, which often use frozen brine, on board. The fish goes straight from the net to the flash freezing container.

People might get hung up on the idea that previously frozen food is less tasty and not fresh. With flash freezing, however, there is very little impact on taste and texture due to the speed of the process. In fact, it is likely that the vast majority of sushi you have tried in the past has been previously frozen, and yet it still tastes fresh and wholesome. This is especially true with deep water fish, such as tuna. When you have to make a lengthy trip into the open ocean to fish, there is no way to safely transport it without freezing.

In summary, sushi grade fish is fish which has been treated to kill the harmful parasites that can live in seafood. If you are planning on eating seafood raw, you will want to buy fish from a reputable source. There are a few general guidelines that can help you determine if fish is safe, which is especially important for fish that you are planning on making sushi out of. If fish smells sour, fishy, or like ammonia (bleach), you should not make sushi out of it. The flesh needs to be firm, with shiny flesh which is never slimy. There should be no discoloration or darkening around the edges in the fish. While sushi is, in general a safe and healthy food, you should always be careful in what you eat.

Sushi Grade Ahi - Maguro
Sushi Grade Ahi - Maguro

Where can I find sushi grade fish?

Sushi is a healthy and delicious, and many sushi lovers are making their own at home. If you want to serve up fresh sushi and sashimi, you are going to need sushi grade fish. While the FDA cautions that fish should always be cooked before consuming, sushi is quite safe as long as you buy from a reputable source that is supplying fish meant to be consumed raw. This means that you want to avoid grocery stores especially, who in general only serve fish meant to be cooked.

It can be tough to find sushi grade fish, but Japanese markets will often be the go to place to find what you need. If you are lucky enough to live near a Japanese market, check their selection for fish that is already prepared for sushi making. You will find rectangular cuts of fish which are prepared to be sliced against the grain for perfect sushi. Make sure to double check that the fish is meant to be eaten raw!

One thing to make certain of when buying sushi grade fish is that the fish is previously frozen, and not just any freezing process, as parasites that can live in fish need an industrial strength thawing to be killed off. While some may argue that fish loses its taste through freezing, the reality is that flash freezing techniques used for sushi grade fish preserve the flavor well. FDA guidelines require that fish sold to be served raw must be frozen to kill the parasites, but the fact that enforcement is local means that finding a retailer you can trust is very important.

Flash freezing processes have made it possible for online retailers of sushi grade fish to spring up, as the process allows them to provide fresh tasting fish. The fish is usually shipped with dry ice and an insulated cooler which allows the product to arrive completely frozen, often with a money back guarantee. Online retailers are especially good for newcomers to making sushi, as it is possible to purchase starter packs which will include the necessaries. The benefits of online retailers are a huge selection, with the downside being that you cannot check the product for quality before purchase. If you are lucky enough to live in the US, you can often find same day, free shipping with a minimum order.

Catching sushi grade fish yourself can be done, but the fact is that without proper training it is not recommended. If you do want to catch your own sushi grade fish, make sure to stick to salt water fish. Freshwater bodies are a breeding ground for many dangerous parasites, and even with proper training it can be dangerous!

What about buying fish from the grocery store of the fishmonger? Unless they specifically sell sushi grade fish, which is very unlikely, you do not want to even consider these options. Don't give in to convenience or a slightly cheaper price! The fact is, a household freezer just does not get cold enough to kill the parasites and microorganisms that can live in fish and pose the greatest risk for eating raw. While it's true that grocery store fish comes under most of the same FDA regulations and health code requirements as sushi grade fish, the reality is that you cannot be too careful when eating raw fish. While it is safe almost 100% of the time, you don't want to be that tiny percentage who gets sick. Because there are not stringent FDA regulations on what constitutes sushi or sashimi grade fish, you are at the mercy of the retailers and suppliers to make sure your fish is safe to eat. With that in mind, it is definitely worth buying from a retailer that specializes in fish meant to be consumed raw.

If you are planning on buying sushi grade fish yourself and not from an online retailer, there are a few tips to keep in mind in the selection process. The flesh should be clean and firm without any sliminess, and the smell should not be "fishy" or with a hint of bleach. Discoloration at the edges of the fish can be a sign that it is not quite fresh, though keep in mind that certain species of fish, such as some tunas, may have a rainbow hue that is not indicative of poor quality.

Luckily, the huge demand for sushi has made it easier than ever to find a supplier. Nowadays, you do not have to live next to the ocean to find fresh, delicious sushi thanks to the proliferation of online retailers and markets which specialize in this high quality sushi grade seafood.

How do I know fish is fresh and can I re-use old sushi grade fish?

After eating sushi, I always feel healthy and revitalized. Luckily for me, I have been fortunate to have only experienced deliciously fresh fish in my sushi dishes. If you are making your own sushi, you want to pick the freshest sushi grade fish you can. Here you will learn what to look for in fresh fish, and whether or not you can re-use raw sushi grade fish or store sushi.

When selecting your sushi-grade fish, you need to check for freshness in the look, smell, and feel of the fish. The eyes need to be clear, as cloudiness is an indicator that it has been sitting out for too long. The scales should firmly attached, and not fall of easily, with firm flesh that is shiny rather than slimy. The gills should be red, without any discoloration at the edges. Note that discoloration will usually be grayish, and that some species of tuna may have a rainbow hue which is not indicative of poor quality or staleness. Even if your fish (be it a whole fish or cut into rectangles for ease of sushi making) looks and feels fresh, smelling the fish or its packaging is the easiest way to check for freshness. While fish will smell of the sea, it should not have an overly fishy smell, or have any hints of ammonia (bleach). If the fish smells off at all, choose a different one. Make sure to smell the fish not only when you purchase it, but also right before using it.

Once you have your fish and make sushi or sashimi, can you store or re-use sushi grade fish? The fact is, it is impossible to kill all of the contaminants and micro-organisms in fish. While the levels of contaminants may be low and therefore safe when you purchase your sushi grade fish, the levels will rise leading it to be safest to eat sushi grade fish in one sitting. Prepared sushi as well should be eaten as soon as possible, and not just because this is the safest way. Sushi simply does not keep well, and the cooked rice and nori (seaweed) will lose their tastes and textures quickly, especially if you freeze them. Sushi is a delicacy which needs to be eaten fresh to be enjoyed properly. The best way to do this is to buy your sushi grade fish the day that you are making it.

Making sushi at home is a fun and rewarding process, and selecting the right fish is the key to enjoying a delicious and safe meal. Make sure that you are buying your sushi grade fish from a source which is selling sushi meant for raw consumption, as they will go through a parasite destruction freezing process to make your fish safe. The best places for sushi grade fish tend to be online retailers with day-off shipping and Japanese markets which specialize in sushi grade fish. Select your fresh fish, make it the day off, and enjoy sushi as it was meant to be enjoyed.

Proper handling of fish for sushi - Proper handling techniques are key to ensuring your sushi won't make you sick

If you are making sushi at home you will need to make sure that you are handling your seafood properly and avoid any cross contamination. This video will give you an idea of the basics for handling your seafood properly and keeping your food safe and healthful.

The risks of eating sushi

If your sushi is not "sushi grade" then you shouldn't be eating it!

while there may not be a formal and legal definition, the FDA requirements are, so far, enough to keep sushi fans healthy. The risks of ignoring proper food safety are few, but nevertheless not fun. The two most common problems with improperly handled seafood are an illness called Anisakis, and a more general illness which is simple bacterial contamination that is colloquially referred to as "food poisoning," which is something that most people have encountered more than once in their life, and may result in varying degrees of sickness.

Anisakis is a disease caused by a nematode that lives part of its life cycle in fish. It is also quite capable of doing so inside terrestrial animals, e.g. humans. While not often deadly, the infection can cause serious gastrointestinal distress, and can often require hospitalization to treat. Fortunately, the above mentioned freezing process is enough to kill the parasite, meaning that unless this step was omitted, which is possible for a small group of fish types (for example Tuna), you should be quite safe from this infection.

The second, more generic food poisoning is something that is caused by many different types of bacteria, and will often escape your radar, and ranged from mild to severe. This is often caused by cross contamination, as fish can be placed on surfaces that had other items, or cutlery used on many different items may spread bacteria from any given place to what was a clean piece of fish. Proper sanitation and food handling will minimize this risk, and it is something that all restaurants, not just sushi restaurants will work to avoid.

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