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Raw Deal? Slicing and Dicing Safe Sushi Eating in the U.S.

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Should sushi worries stemming from the nuclear disaster in Japan deep six Americans' enjoyment of a culinary favorite?

Adding to the list of radiation fears shared in the United States, are growing questions about the safety of the Japanese delicacy, served up not only with exquisite style in fancy Los Angeles sushi bars, but also in cold cases at the grocery store and through the windows of increasingly popular food trucks. Journalists report restaurants dropping Japanese fish from their menus and sales plunging at Tokyo's normally bustling Tsukiji market.

The good news is that, in terms of radiation emitted as part of the catastrophe at the nuclear power plants in Northern Japan, there's little to fear. The vastness and constant motion of the Pacific waters quickly and effectively dilute radioactive material. That makes it unlikely that any fish or other ocean edibles affected might end up on American tables. Fish frequenting the waters near the Fukushima plant are in the most danger of potential contamination, but fishing vessels aren't harvesting in those waters now. The main contaminant there is iodine-131, which has a half life of eight days - meaning every eight days, half of the material dissipates.

The Food and Drug Administration says, still, it is carefully monitoring Japanese imports. After the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare confirmed the presence of radioactive iodine in dairy products, fresh produce and infant formula products, the FDA issued an import alert. Products from Kawamata town, and the prefectures of Fukushima and Ibaraki - all near the calamitous nuclear plant - were found to have more than five times the acceptable level of iodine. While the iodine decays naturally within weeks, it can still cause damage to the thyroid if ingested.

While seafood isn't a food covered by the import alert, officials also are handling it carefully and inspecting it for radiation contamination before it can enter the U.S. food supply. Thus far, they have not detected radioactive iodine in fish imported from Japan.

Source of the Matter
Of equal importance, much of the seafood sold in Southern California, and nationwide, is sourced from waters across the world and far from Japan. Sue Watson, an inside sales manager at Santa Monica Seafood who has been in the business for more than a decade, said her company - with retail outlets locally and wholesale product in Southern California, Arizona and Nevada - now imports only hamachi (yellowtail tuna) from Japan. That fish comes from the west coast of Japan - far from the Fukushima plant.

Like other wholesalers, her firm imports seafood from across the globe, with the bulk of it coming from waters off the U.S. Pacific Coast and down to Mexico. Sourcing food locally has many benefits, not the least of which is that it's just plain cheaper; shipping seafood long distances is expensive, Watson says.

Unfounded as the latest radiation fears may be about fish, it's another blow to the sushi brand. There have been health scares about it before, as well as growing concerns over whether sushi is ecologically sustainable. Monterey Bay Aquarium offers a sushi guide on which seafood varieties it calls environmentally sound and which may be perilously over-fished.

And What About Mercury?
Concerns about mercury levels in fish have made recent headlines, too. While mercury in fish isn't a major concern for most people - and fish is an important part of a well-balanced diet - all seafood contains mercury traces. The FDA and Environmental Protection Agency recommend that women who may become pregnant, those pregnant, nursing mothers and young children choose seafood lower in mercury; these include edibles like shrimp, salmon, catfish and canned light tuna. Officials recommend against shark, swordfish, tilefish and king mackerel. The guideline is 12 ounces of low mercury fish per week.

If you're a fish fancier, it's a good idea to keep an eye on the EPA advisories for what waters near you are the safest sources for a fresh catch of the day.

Pregnant women, of course, should avoid raw sushi and all other under- or uncooked meats, poultry, seafood and eggs to avoid bacteria and parasites that can harm the baby. Most Japanese restaurants offer cooked rolls and other Japanese prepared delights that are fine for pregnant women; be sure that the fish or shellfish has been cooked through and not just seared.

In fact, sticking to cooked rolls may be a way to chow down for less adventuresome eaters who want to ensure they don't contract food-borne illnesses, the causes of which (bacteria or parasites) mostly are killed off by high-heat preparation.

But de gustibus non est disputandum, as they say: If you acquired a taste for an extraordinary cross-culture foodstuff, like sushi, go ahead and enjoy it in a great place that knows how to handle, prepare and serve it well. And know that the only glow about your meal will not be because of radiation but the flush you may feel when getting that big bill.