Friday, May 25, 2007

Food Safety This Friday: Imported Monkfish That Are Really Puffer Fish Predictably Contain Deadly Neurotoxin

This morning, after my daily reading of food safety news (well, as much of a reading as I could stomach, at least), I shook my head for the umpteenth time and wondered aloud, What next?

You'd think I would have learned by now. Anyway, I've highlighted the extra-disturbing parts for those who are in a hurry. Here, read:

WASHINGTON -- A frozen product labeled monkfish distributed in three states is being recalled after two Chicago area people became ill after eating it, the importer announced Thursday.

Hong Chang Corporation of Santa Fe Springs, Calif., said it is recalling the product labeled as monkfish because it may contain tetrodotoxin, a potent toxin.

While the frozen fish imported from China was labeled monkfish, the company said it is concerned that it may be pufferfish because this toxin is usually associated with certain types of pufferfish.

Eating foods containing tetrodotoxin can result in life-threatening illness or death and the toxin cannot be destroyed by cooking or freezing.


Consumers who have purchased this monkfish can return it to the place of purchase for a full refund. Care should be exercised in handling the fish as the tetrodotoxin may be present on the skin and flesh of the fish. Wash hands thoroughly after handling.

Consumers with questions may contact the company at 1-562-309-0068.

People who may have consumed these products and have concerns are encouraged to contact their health care provider. Illnesses associated with consumption of these products should be reported to the nearest FDA district offices and to the local health authority.

This latest episode in a long, sorry series of toxic import sagas is shocking, yes, but the actual consequences of all profit-driven malfeasance--mislabeling cheaper and oftentimes poisonous ingredients, to name just one example--are hardly surprising. If these frozen "monkfish" are actually puffer fish being handled as monkfish, there will be tetrodotoxin all over the place.

The FDA pulls no punches in its press release (dated May 24); much of the language is genuinely chilling:

FDA Warning on Mislabeled Monkfish
Fish Believed to be Puffer Fish; Contains Deadly Toxin

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is warning consumers not to buy or eat imported fish labeled as monkfish, which actually may be puffer fish, containing a potentially deadly toxin called tetrodotoxin. Eating puffer fish that contain this potent toxin can result in serious illness or death.


Two people in the Chicago area became ill after consuming homemade soup containing the fish. One was hospitalized due to severe illness.

FDA's analysis of the fish confirmed the presence of potentially life-threatening levels of tetrodotoxin.

Initial symptoms of tetrodotoxin poisoning occur 30 minutes to several hours after food containing the toxin is consumed. Tetrotoxin poisoning is characterized initially by tingling of the lips and tongue. Tingling of the face and extremities and numbness follow. Subsequent symptoms may include headache, balance problems, excessive salivation, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal pain. Consumers experiencing these symptoms should seek immediate medical care and are encouraged to report their illness to local health authorities. In severe cases, muscles can become paralyzed, and death may follow from respiratory muscle paralysis.

A total of 282 22-pound boxes labeled as monkfish were distributed to wholesalers in Illinois, California and Hawaii beginning in September 2006. These fish were then sold to restaurants or sold in stores. In one instance, the retailer labeled the fish as "bok," the Korean name for puffer fish.

It's illegal in the U.S., with very few highly-restricted exceptions, but in other countries--Japan in particular--puffer fish are served as fugu,
the inexplicably popular, wildly expensive, and potentially lethal sashimi dish the preparation and serving of which can only lawfully be undertaken by licensed Japanese fugu chefs. Because that mad treat can kill if it's not prepared absolutely correctly and with surgical precision:

Since 1958, only specially licensed chefs can prepare and sell fugu to the public. The fugu apprentice needs a two- or three-year apprenticeship before being allowed to take an official test. The test consists of a written test, a fish identification test, and a practical test of preparing fugu and then eating it. Only 30% of the applicants pass the test. This, of course, does not mean that 70% die from poisoning; rather, they made a small mistake in the long and complicated procedure of preparing the dish. Due to this rigorous examination process, it is generally safe to eat the sliced fugu sold in restaurants or markets.

Furthermore, most fugu sold nowadays comes from fish with only a small amount of toxin. Selling or serving the most toxic liver is illegal in Japan, but this "forbidden fruit" is still sometimes eaten by amateur cooks, often with fatal results. After the years following Japan's defeat in World War II, when several homeless people died from eating fugu organs that had been discarded into insecure trashcans, restaurants in Japan were required to store the poisonous inner organs in specially locked barrels that are later burned as hazardous waste.

Hazardous waste is an understatement. About that tetrodotoxin:

Tetrodotoxin is an exceptionally lethal poison. Tetrodotoxin is approximately 1200 times deadlier than cyanide. In animal studies with mice, 8 μg tetrodotoxin per kilogram of body weight killed 50% of the mice (see also LD50). It is estimated that a single puffer has enough poison to kill 30 adult humans.

A couple of things, in my view, can't be said often enough: One, we must do whatever it takes to properly fund and staff the FDA. And that might mean reworking the entire structure of the regulatory powers and processes, creating a single formidable agency where several weaker ones existed before. If such an organization could wield meaningful authority, and operate with an acceptable and legally-mandated level of transparency, I'd be all for it. When you consider the volume of imported foodstuff that lands in the U.S. every day, remembering the various import alerts--some of them active over a decade--already in place against a number of countries, it is simply not logical to rely on, or even expect, a guarantee of poison-free dining when only 1% of imported foods and ingredients get inspected.

And two, Americans want and need accurate information about the contents and origins of our food. If a country has an official and recorded history of shipping poisoned, mislabeled, adulterated, rotten, or otherwise toxic food into the United States, American consumers deserve the right to decide if they're willing to take the risk, the right to make their concerns known at the grocery store, and the right to hold accountable those who would and do harm us, whether intentionally or as a consequence of institutionalized, profit-driven malfeasance.

It's important to note that Country Of Origin Labels (COOL) legislation is only one way to uphold the notion of accountability. Indeed, it's rather obvious that trade agreements must be revisited, too: strict compliance with U.S health and safety standards should, from this day forward, be a non-negotiable, loophole-free requirement for anyone wishing to export to America. Further, said countries must vow to see to it that visiting U.S. inspectors are afforded full access to any and all physical plants and appropriate records in order to enforce this compliance; delays and denials would risk tangible penalties and threaten the country's trading privileges.

Despite its widespread support among Americans, demonstrated in poll after poll with 82% in favor of mandatory Country Of Origin Labels, the usual suspects--in other words, those powerful, deep-pocket-boasting interests that government unfortunately listens to--have fought COOL tooth and nail, and they've been largely successful. Between 2002 and 2004, the American Farm Bureau Federation amassed $11,840,000 in lobbying expenses aimed at defeating COOL; Wal-Mart's lobbying expenditures toward the same end were $2,760,000. Predictably, all that money effort translated into a (so-far) three year delay of the labeling laws, with no implementation deadline set and none in sight--not unless consumers speak out.

You can contact members of the U.S. Senate here, and the House of Representatives here.

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