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Monday, March 5, 2012

Tokyo to drop fugu license ordinance amid decline in fatal diner poisonings


Staff writer

Fugu, a fish delicacy usually offered to discerning diners at expensive Japanese restaurants, may become available at cheaper eateries in Tokyo in October if the metropolitan government allows unlicensed chefs to process and sell the poisonous puffer fish.

News photo
Fugu for all: A man passes a sign advertising fugu meals outside a restaurant in Minato Ward, Tokyo, on Thursday. YOSHIAKI MIURA

The move may be welcomed by stingy Tokyoites, but cautious consumers are likely to keep going to restaurants where licensed professionals prepare the delicacy.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government is set to enact a bill to revise the ordinance on regulating fugu trade by the end of the month. Any revision will likely take effect in October.

Fugu ovaries, liver and other internal organs contain enough poison to be lethal, which is why Tokyo and other prefectures have licensing a requisite for serving it.

However, the ordinance has become somewhat outdated because many Tokyo residents now buy fugu, known for its chewy, nonfatty white meat, from prefectures with fewer restrictions, said Hironobu Kondo of the metro government's food control department.

Also, because few diners have suffered any ill effects from eating fugu sold in Tokyo lately, safety concerns have become less of an issue, Kondo added.

"The revision will mean many more eateries will be allowed to sell fugu, and thus consumers may be able to eat cheap kinds of fugu at 'izakaya' (traditional Japanese pubs) and other restaurants," said Yuichi Makita, chairman of the Tokyo Fugu Cuisine Association.

"But prices of high-quality fugu, such as tora (tiger) fugu, will not drop and will probably not be available at such cheap places," said Makita, who runs a high-class blowfish restaurant in Tokyo. Makita says he opposes easing the licensing requirement because it will compromise diner safety.

Tokyo is one of only a handful of prefectures where people without proper licenses are currently not allowed to sell so-called "mikaki fugu," or whole fugu minus the poisonous parts, Makita said.

To be sure, any fish shop can sell sliced or processed fugu meat as long as it is registered for sale at a public health center. Only the sale of mikaki fugu is restricted.

From October, mikaki fugu sellers must label their products as "having venomous parts removed." Those who buy it, mainly restaurants, must only buy labeled fish and keep records of who they buy it from, if they don't have any licensed fugu chefs on staff.

The number of people selling mikaki fugu will surge as "basically any (fishmonger) can sell mikaki fugu," Makita said.

The metropolitan government had issued licenses to sell mikaki fugu to 19,538 people as of the end of 2009, and the number grows by about 500 each year, Kondo said.

A dinner course of fugu sashimi, stewed fugu and other puffer fish cuisine typically costs between ¥5,000 to ¥30,000. Prices are high for natural tora fugu and but lower for other types. The fish are mainly caught in western Japan.

Fugu venom, or tetrodotoxin, is a neurotoxin. A dose of just 1 to 2 mg can be fatal, according to the metropolitan government.

Nationwide, there were 338 food poisoning cases in Japan related to fugu consumption that killed 23 people from 2000 to 2009.

Tokyo has logged seven instances of fugu poisoning over the past decade, with only one occurring in a restaurant, according to the metropolitan government. There was only one fatality: a man who ate fugu he had caught and cooked himself.

Last November, at the request of a customer, a Chuo Ward fugu chef served up the liver of the fish to someone who ate it and came down with food poisoning.

"These are cases concerning careless people. We believe that fugu, if prepared by experienced chefs, is safe to eat," Kondo said.



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