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New York's Health Department Wants to Freeze All of Its Sushi

The NY Department of Health is currently considering new requirements that would mandate that all raw fish used for sushi be frozen—but most of it likely already is.
February 2, 2015, 11:42pm

The appeal of sushi, many would argue, is that it represents true freshness. No one would yearn for a spicy yellowtail roll or fat pink hunk of toro if it had been freeze-dried, reconstituted, and then dehydrated into jerky, or nuked to oblivion and then stuffed into a vacuum-packed plastic tube. Or how about if your ceviche came in a sealed plastic cup, like a fruit cocktail?

But most of us don't think too hard about our sushi—it's driven straight from the docks to your local Japanese restaurant, right? Although slabs of fish are often seen resting on ice on sushi bars, few consumers put much thought into whether their fish was frozen before being making it onto their plate as elegant sashimi.

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Well, the New York Department of Health is currently considering the implementation of new requirements that would mandate that all raw fish used for sushi and ceviche be frozen. Only farm-raised fish and wild-caught tuna—which have very clean flesh because they are deep sea fish—would be exempt.

According to Gothamist, high-end restaurants that fill their piggy banks on the promise of super-fresh seafood, such as Le Bernadin and Marea, are not pleased. Nobu is also reportedly frowning at the tighter regulations, which would be instituted to reduce the risk of parasite contamination and transmission. Fish such as salmon are particularly at risk.

But before you get all up in arms about the sanctity of your precious sushi being thoughtlessly destroyed, consider this. Ten years ago, 50 to 60 percent of fish used for sushi was frozen—some of it for up to two years.

In an interview with The New York Times from 2004, chef Shin Tsujimura of Nobu, one of the annoyed restaurants mentioned above, said that even he couldn't tell the difference between fresh and frozen fish in a blind taste test. And technically, all fish for sushi in the US is supposed to be frozen, by law. The FDA has long mandated that fish that will be consumed raw—i.e. sushi, sashimi, ceviche, or tartare—must be frozen first to kill parasites; however, this rule is often ignored because its unclear whether the wholesaler or the restaurant should do the honors.

Despite the ubiquitousness of freezing seafood, most of the complaints regarding the proposed change of guidelines stem from reluctance to fork over thousands on big, pricey freezers, and concerns—possibly unfounded—that freezing could negatively impact the mouthfeel of some fish flesh upon thaw.

Pro tip: the term "sushi-grade" isn't formally unregulated in the US, so it can be slapped on just about anything.

So while freezing your supposedly precious salmon may sound like it will ruin your immaculate idea of sushi freshness, just think of it this way: you probably wouldn't want that pretty pink sashimi if it was crawling with sea bugs.