Blowfish offerings expand after Tokyo eases rules

Published on
September 30, 2014

Tokyo officials have changed the rules regarding the use of potentially toxic blowfish in the city’s restaurants, allowing local chefs to cash in on the growing blowfish market in Japan.

Since October  2012, Tokyo has allowed restaurants that do not employ a chef with a blowfish-preparation license, or “fugu chef,” to offer the fish, as long as poisonous parts have already been removed by a licensed professional. The ovaries and liver are the most dangerous parts of the blowfish (also known as fugu, pufferfish and swellfish), while the skin contains a lesser amount.

Shops and restaurants without certified fugu chefs must display a sign showing they only serve “migaki fugu,” which is blowfish with the poisonous body parts removed, and processed fugu, which is further cut into pieces. The fish must be certified and labeled and the operators must keep sourcing records and report to the metropolitan government.

Licensing requirements are not national, but vary by prefecture. Of Japan’s 47 prefectures, 19 (including Tokyo) had required establishments serving blowfish to hire chefs that had obtained a blowfish-preparation license. In Tokyo, obtaining the license requires a two-year internship and a test. Now, that license is only required when the fish is processed on site, such as at restaurants displaying live fish in tanks.

The impetus for the change was an increase in online sales of blowfish from other prefectures and the good safety record of processors. While blowfish poisonings still occur, these are usually caused by sport fishermen processing their own catches.

As an example of the expansion of online offerings, at the 2014 Japan International Seafood and Technology Expo last August, three companies were displaying new blowfish sets for sale online. Delivery is by chilled courier.

Iyosui Corp. of Uwajima in Ehime Prefeture displayed a set of thinly sliced sashimi on a platter. A 380-gram platter serving three to four people costs 3,240 yen (USD 29.57, EUR 23.32). Fukutaro Honbu Co., Ltd., based in Kitakyushu, offers sashimi platters, testes, cut-up meat for hotpot dishes, and meat deep fried with sesame.

Genyo-sha Co., Ltd. of Shimonoseki in Yamaguchi Prefecture — Japan’s leading city for blowfish and the site of the main blowfish auction — offered thinly sliced raw blowfish in a triangular bottle. There are three flavors: plain, konbu (kelp) and yuzu-salt. “Yuzu” is a citron, similar to a lemon. Refrigerated, the bottled fish lasts for a month. The price is 1,620 yen (USD 14.78, EUR 11.66) for 100 grams. The company is promoting it for pairing with white wine. This corresponds with Tokyo officials' goal to expand the use of blowfish to establishments serving Western and Chinese dishes. Blowfish is being transformed from a dish served only by master chefs at specialty shops to a dish that can be enjoyed in any setting, including at home and at conveyor belt sushi shops.

In addition to the increased safety of buying pre-processed blowfish, the fish itself is being made less poisonous. Scientists at Nagasaki University have found that the toxins in blowfish originate not from the fish themselves, but from certain bacteria that the fish consume with their feed. When reared in net pens well off the ocean floor and fed a diet of mackerel rather than their usual diet of shellfish, starfish and crustaceans, the toxins are absent.

Many farmed blowfish are raised in indoor tanks to eliminate the possibility of their consuming foods that would give them toxicity. These use pumped seawater. They are a rare example of profitable land-based aquaculture owing to the high sales price of the product.

One company, Optima Foods Corp. of Matsuyama, Ehime Prefecture, has gone so far as to produce its own saltwater from freshwater to eliminate all exposure to natural seawater. The company hopes that previously toxic parts such as the liver could be consumed, but this seems unlikely, as the authorities prefer to err on the side of caution.

Total farmed blowfish production has reached about 4,500 metric tons (MT) out of a total of around 20,000 MT. Two species make up the bulk of sales: tora-fugu or tiger pufferfish (Takifugu rubripes rubripes), and karasu (Takifugu rubripes chininsis).

Most imported pufferfish comes from South Korea, with small amounts from North Korea and Taiwan. Vietnam is also trying to enter the field. A pilot project exclusively with a Korean firm was followed in October 2012 by the opening of blowfish processing to foreign investors.

Pufferfish caught in the mid-Atlantic coastal waters of the United States, between Virginia and New York are of a species that does not contain poison and can be safely eaten, but it is not among the 22 species approved for importation to Japan. The U.S. allows importation of blowfish from Japan that has had toxic parts removed in Shimonoseki by certified personnel, but only three to four importations per year, only through JFK airport and only by one importer: New York-based Wako International.

Contributing Editor reporting from Osaka, Japan

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