Monday, January 30, 2012

Puffer Fish Roulette

The good news is that poison free puffer fish can be safely eaten.  The bad news is that there appears to be no end of takers for the opportunity to play Russian roulette.   Thus the wild puffer continues to be eaten as bizarre as this may seem.  So it certainly has nothing to do with taste or even good sense. 

Banning does not seem to work, any more that banning dueling ever completely worked.  That took a change in social expectations when dueling scars no longer impressed and after millions died in the WWI.  Something similar is at work here in which I am sure far too much Saki flows and boys will be boys.

Of well, if you are curious, you can taste the safe version and brag about it to all you know while omitting that it was poison free.

How the puffer fish gets you high, zombifies you, and kills you

Puffer fish, or fugu, is well-known for being a dish that stands a good chance of killing the person it's served to. But people still eat it — partly because some people like living life on the edge, but mostly because all people like getting high. Find out how the puffer fish helps them get there.

The puffer fish, any one of the family of tetraodontidae, protects itself in the wild by gulping down water and swelling up its belly to make itself look bigger. It does this because, apparently, it can't find a way to communicate the simple message, "I am poisonous." These fish are considered the second most poisonous vertebrates in the world. They contain a toxin 1,200 more deadly than cyanide. It's in their skin, their ovaries, their gonads, and their liver. One fish can kill thirty people.

So of course it seems like a spin worthy of Barnum to label them a 'delicacy,' and charge hundreds of dollars a serving for them. A closer examination of the work that goes into making puffer fish, or fugu, shows that the price is fair. Fugu chefs have to be trained for two years, during which they will eat many of the fish that they themselves prepare. And make no mistake, people do die from fugu poisoning. About five people a year make puffer fish their last meal, and many more get violently sick from it. It's not a pleasant way to go.

The poison, tetrodotoxin, is actually produced by the bacteria that the fish allows to colonize its various parts. Tetrodotoxin is a neurotoxin, meaning it takes out the nervous system as it moves through the body. This may sound like a relatively painless death, with the brain going offline quickly. That's not the case. The toxin starts with the extremities. The first place people notice it is in the lips. Then the fingers. There's a tingling numbness, and a loss of control. This is a sign that it's time to get to the hospital. The toxin moves inwards from there, taking out the muscles, often causing weakness, while paradoxically bringing on vomiting and diarrhea. Then tetrodotoxin hits the diaphragm. This is the large, muscular membrane in the chest that lets the lungs breathe in and out. The respiratory system is paralyzed while the person is still fully conscious. Eventually the toxin does get to the brain, but only after the person involved has felt their body being paralyzed completely, entombing them inside. Even then, some people aren't lucky enough to completely lose consciousness. There are people who report being conscious, either occasionally or continually, throughout their coma.

These people may still be luckier than some puffer fish victims. Wade Davis, who wrote about the famous Clairvius Narcisse case of a person becoming a 'zombie,' claimed that puffer fish toxin, along with other neurotoxins, was used to first make a person seem dead, then take out their higher brain function and cause them to become a zombie. Davis' research, though initially promising when rats rubbed with the toxin became sluggish and seemed 'zombified,' has been called into question. Some people now think that Narcisse was simply mentally ill, and Davis had coached or at least been too willing to believe his story.

Still, with the threat of horrible death via full-body paralysis and the chance to be a mindless zombie, why people eat puffer fish at all seems a mystery. If someone were serving up a steaming bowl of strychnine, there wouldn't be any takers (unless it was from one of those darling gourmet food trucks). It turns out that neurotoxins, though vicious killers, get people pretty high, provided the doses are low enough. One scientist, who had been bitten by a snake with neurotoxic venom, described it as the kind of peaceful light-headed feeling that people are supposed to get in the last few moments before they drown. That, combined with a tingling body, is enough to risk lives for. In fact, one of the complaints of fugu enthusiasts is that the chefs know their business too well, and too cleanly remove the organs from the fish, leaving just thin, safe slices of fish for the disappointed guests to eat. Some guests dredge their portions lightly in the toxin to feel the tingle. Bandō Mitsugorō VIII, an famous actor, deliberately ordered four fugu livers to feel the rush and claimed the poison wouldn't hurt him. He died seven hours later.

The face of fugu may be changing, though. Fisheries have begun breeding fugu in environments free of the bacteria that produce the poison. These fish are harmless, and can be prepared and served by anyone. Naturally, this is getting kick back from both ends of the spectrum. Consumers aren't quite as interested in the puffer fish if it's just another fish. Meanwhile the National Fugu Association won't hear of serving fugu liver, even if it doesn't contain the toxin. Looks like the only thing worse than a fish that can kill you, is a fish that can't.

If the Fish Liver Can’t Kill, Is It Really a Delicacy?

Published: May 4, 2008

SHIMONOSEKI, Japan — Poison has been as integral to fugu, the funny-looking, potentially deadly puffer fish prized by Japanese gourmands, as the savor of its pricey meat. So consider fugu, but poison-free.

Ko Sasaki for The New York Times
Eiji Hata with a fugu, which sells for about $300 at market.

Fugu have appeared in haiku, on TV and, here, as a lantern in Shimonoseki, Japan.
Thanks to advances in fugu research and farming, Japanese fish farmers are now mass-producing fugu as harmless as goldfish. Most important, they have taken the poison out of fugu’s liver, considered both its most delicious and potentially most lethal part, one whose consumption has left countless Japanese dead over the centuries and whose sale remains illegal in the country.

But what could be seen as potential good news for gourmands has instead been grounds for controversy: powerful interests in the fugu industry, playing on lingering safety fears, are fighting to keep the ban on fugu livers even from poison-free fish.

“We won’t approve it,” Hisashi Matsumura, the president of the Shimonoseki Fugu Association and vice president of the National Fugu Association, said of the legalization of fugu liver. He added, “We’re not engaging in this irrelevant discussion.”

Acting as a giant clearinghouse, this port city in southwestern Japan buys fugu from all over Japan and China, guts it and expertly removes its poison before shipping it throughout Japan and as far as New York. Though Shimonoseki’s share has fallen in recent years, it still controls about half of Japan’s fugu market.

But the city’s business, predicated on the fact that fugu is poisonous, now faces a threat with poison-free, farmed fugu liver.

Already, a prefecture in Kyushu, south of here, defiantly serves it. A town in another prefecture applied to be designated a special farmed fugu liver-eating zone.

And a group of scientists served it in March at a Tokyo tasting event for some 40 chefs and restaurant-related businessmen. All ate. All survived.

Mr. Matsumura spoke recently in his office at the fugu market here just after the daily 3:20 a.m. auction. At times he sounded like a man trying to stamp out unrest in the provinces, daring the rebellious to “go ahead” and waving them away as “a minority.”
He insisted that fugu liver, whether farmed or wild, was simply too dangerous.

But researchers and fish farmers said Shimonoseki opposed the legalization of farmed fugu liver simply because it feared losing its grip on the fugu market. Shimonoseki now processes even nonpoisonous farmed fugu, because health authorities have yet to recognize officially that fugu can be made poison-free.

Shimonoseki’s opposition, researchers and fish farmers said, is squelching the opening of new markets and depriving gourmands of the chance to sample fugu foie gras, which connoisseurs regard as more exquisite than the goose’s (and which entails none of the ethical quandaries of force-feeding and is full of healthful omega-3 fatty acids).

“They want to protect their vested interests,” said Tamao Noguchi, a marine toxin specialist at Tokyo Healthcare University and a leading fugu expert. “They won’t accept this for a long, long time.”

It was Mr. Noguchi who, over eight years, conducted a study underpinning what two decades of fish farming in Japan had already shown: that fugu could be made poison-free by strictly controlling its feed.

Decades earlier, another Japanese scientist had identified fugu’s poison as tetrodotoxin, a neurotoxin that leaves victims mentally aware while they suffer paralysis and, in the worst cases, die of heart failure or suffocation. There is no known antidote.

Researchers surmised that fugu probably got the toxin by eating other animals that carried tetrodotoxin-laden bacteria, developing immunity over time — though scientists then did not rule out the possibility that fugu produced the toxin on its own.

By this year, Mr. Noguchi had tested more than 7,000 fugu in seven prefectures in Japan that had been given only feed free of the tetrodotoxin-laden bacteria. Not one was poisonous.

“When it wasn’t known where fugu’s poison came from, the mystery made for better conversation,” Mr. Noguchi said. “So, in effect, we took the romance out of fugu.”

Indeed, fugu has appeared in the haiku of Basho, Japan’s greatest poet, and in “The Simpsons,” in an episode in which Homer accidentally eats poisonous fugu.

For centuries, Japanese were drawn to fugu despite, or perhaps because of, its poison. Expert chefs were able to separate the liver and other poisonous parts from the rest of the fish; only one-third of all wild fugu have enough poison to kill.

So chefs served liver after cleansing it of its poison through a traditional method; sometimes a trace of poison remained, not enough to kill, but enough to thrill by slightly numbing the lips.

Despite the precautions, Japanese kept dying. After accidentally losing a number of soldiers to fugu, Hideyoshi, the 16th-century warlord who unified Japan, banned it outright.

But Japanese kept eating it surreptitiously, despite periodic bans. And fugu kept killing Japanese, including, in 1975, a kabuki actor, Bando Mitsugoro VIII, recognized as a “living national treasure.”

Partly in response, the Ministry of Health made fugu liver illegal across the land. The number of deaths dropped, so that nowadays only a few Japanese die every year, not from eating it in restaurants but from fugu they have caught themselves.

The death rate also remains low because Japanese are increasingly eating the nonpoisonous farmed variety, which, thanks to advances in fish farming, has become almost as tasty as the wild kind. Because of overfishing, wild fugu accounts for only 10 percent of the total sold in Japan.

In Yobuko, a port town south of here, Yoshihisa Ohta has raised nonpoisonous fugu for eight years and serves its liver at a restaurant he owns — though only if the customer asks for it.

Yukio Kidera, who was having lunch, including fugu liver, at the restaurant recently, said, “It’d be such a waste to throw away something this delicious.”

Mr. Ohta and researchers like Mr. Noguchi contend that the real reason for keeping fugu livers illegal is to protect the jobs of licensed fugu chefs and businesses in Shimonoseki. The Shimonoseki Fugu Association has strong links with politicians, they say.

Makoto Tanaka, the official responsible for fugu at the Ministry of Health, denied any political or economic reasoning, saying, “People’s lives are at stake.”

Still, undermining arguments that farmed fugu liver is unsafe is the fact that one prefecture south of here, Oita, is famous for serving it in its fugu restaurants. No one has ever been poisoned from eating it. The health authorities in Tokyo and Oita are widely believed to turn a blind eye to the fugu lawbreakers there.

Mr. Tanaka professed to know nothing about the sale of liver in Oita. “That’s outrageous!” he said with a hearty laugh.

The reality, as shown by lunch and dinner at two restaurants in Usuki, the Oita town most famous for fugu, is that fugu liver may not be listed on menus but it is served openly. All the liver served in Usuki comes from nonpoisonous farmed fugu, some of which is shipped from none other than Shimonoseki.

Masataka Kinashi, the head of the tourism association in Usuki and a fugu dealer himself, suddenly stared down at his desk when asked about the widespread sale of fugu liver.

“Officially, you can never eat it here,” Mr. Kinashi said. “Well, it’s not that you can’t eat it, but, no, you can’t eat it. That’s the only answer I can give you.”

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