http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/15/opinion/15shaw.html?ex=1342152000&en=95967c31f42f5f2c&ei=5 090&partner=rssuserland&emc=rssChicken of the Sea
By STEVEN A. SHAW
Published: July 15, 2007
WHEN my wife was pregnant with our son, her obstetrician gave her a list of food dos and don’ts. Chief among the don’ts: alcohol, unpasteurized cheeses and raw fish. Meanwhile, every French mother I know consumed alcohol and unpasteurized cheese in moderation during her pregnancy, and my friends in Japan laugh at the notion of avoiding sushi when they’re expecting.
Indeed, in Japan, eating raw fish is considered part of good neonatal nutrition. The Japanese government is fanatical about public health, and Japanese medical scientists are among the best in the world. You can be sure that, were there documented complications resulting from pregnant women eating sushi in Japan, there would be swift government intervention. Yet, in the United States, it is taboo for a pregnant woman to eat raw fish.
But this isn’t because scientific research has concluded that unborn children have been damaged by sushi. Rather, it’s because the speculative risk of food-borne illnesses, especially parasites, has captured the public imagination.
There are several reasons, however, that these fears are unfounded.
While Americans tend to associate raw fish with sushi and Japan, we have been eating raw seafood for centuries — namely, oysters and clams. And it is these raw mollusks, not the fish typically used in sushi, that are responsible for the overwhelming majority, about 85 percent, of seafood-related illnesses. As the National Academy of Sciences Institute of Medicine
concluded in a 1991 report on illness from eating seafood: “Most seafood-associated illness is reported from consumers of raw bivalve mollusks. ...The majority of incidents are due to consumption of shellfish from fecally polluted water.”If you take raw and partly cooked shellfish out of the equation, the risk of falling ill from eating seafood is 1 in 2 million servings
, the government calculated some years back; by comparison, the risk from eating chicken is 1 in 25,000. (Over all, 76 million cases of food poisoning are reported a year.)
The main risk of illness from non-mollusks isn’t from eating them raw. Rather, as the Institute of Medicine reports, the problem is “cross-contamination of cooked by raw product,” which is “usually associated with time/temperature abuse.” In other words, no matter what you order in a restaurant, if it’s not kept at a proper temperature and protected from contamination, you’re at risk.
Conversely, if the restaurant follows good food safety practices, there is little to worry about. Having been inside the kitchens of dozens of restaurants of all kinds for research, I can say that Japanese kitchens are, on the whole, the cleanest, the most careful and the most conscientious in the business. Moreover, sushi bars are out in the open for all to see, and anybody who has spent a few minutes observing a sushi bar and a typical American diner’s griddle area can tell you which type of restaurant has higher standards of cleanliness.
Sushi may not be cooked, but it has, for the most part, been frozen. Food and Drug Administration
guidelines require that before being served as sushi or sashimi (or in any other raw form), fish be flash-frozen to destroy parasites. While the fish you see in the sushi-bar display case looks fresh, it has almost certainly been frozen at some point in the distribution system. This freezing kills any parasites as sure as cooking would.
Most species used for sushi don’t have parasites anyway, though. Fish like tuna are not particularly susceptible to parasites because they dwell in very deep, very cold water, and sushi restaurants typically use farmed salmon to avoid the parasite problems wild salmon have. Most of the fish likely to have parasites, like cod and whitefish, aren’t generally used for sushi. Nor does pregnancy increase susceptibility to parasites. Healthy women who’ve been eating sushi are not at increased risk when they become pregnant. The same resistance and immunities function before, during and after pregnancy.
But rational analysis doesn’t hold sway with the pregnancy police.
“Why take any risk?” they ask. The medical establishment and the culture at large have twisted logic
around to the point where any risk, no matter how infinitesimal, is too much. So powerful is this Puritanical impulse that, once a health objection is raised, however irrational the recommended behavior, it’s considered irresponsible to behave any other way.
There’s a temptation to say there’s no harm in this type of thinking. Women should simply not eat sushi for nine months; surely that’s no big deal.
But there are problems with this approach. For one thing, between the warnings about parasites in sushi and about mercury in certain species of fish, pregnant women are being scared off fish altogether. And that’s bad news, since the fatty acids in fish are the ideal nourishment for a developing baby.
For another thing, the sushi ban is insulting to Japanese culture. It speaks of ignorance and prejudice to reject one of that culture’s basic foods based on unfounded health claims.
And perhaps most important, pregnancy should be a time of joy, not stress. The result of an over-regulated pregnancy is fear and negativity. Perhaps the best antidote would be to relax with a salmon roll and a nice sake.
Steven A. Shaw is the author of “Turning the Tables on Asian Restaurants: The Insider’s Guide to Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Korean and Southeast Asian Dining.”