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Srinivasan Pillay

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Sushi - Fresh or Frozen? The Answer May Surprise You

Posted: 06/23/09 10:54 AM ET

Before I share the information I have, let me clarify one thing: I am not a sushi fan. However, since many of my friends are, I have been more open to trying it out, and on occasion, I have been surprised by the pleasant and "clean" taste. Also, being a fan of salt, I can see myself opening up to the experience. However, one of my pet peeves is reading anti-meat articles written by vegetarians or anti-vegetable articles written by carnivores (admittedly there are far fewer of these), so given that I am not a sushi fan, I will ask you to take this admission as an indication that you read the information I am providing with a grain of salt (or soy sauce) -- your choice.

I was a little surprised to come across an article that examined the bacterial counts in fresh and frozen sushi to see if there was a difference. Given that frozen sushi must have been handled a little more extensively, and given that "fresh" always sounds better than "frozen," I prepared myself for yet another a victory for "fresh" (don't even get me started on "organic" -- that's another column altogether.)

In this study published in the Journal of Food Protection in 2008, a comparison was made between frozen sushi from supermarkets and fresh sushi from sushi bars. Okay -- supermarket versus sushi bar-another clue. Right? Wrong! Aerobic mesophilic bacteria (for all intensive purposes-bad things) differed between these two sources or methods of presentation to the public. The aerobic mesophilic bacteria count was 2.7 log CFU/g for frozen sushi and 6.3 log CFU/g for fresh sushi. Again, the logCFU/g units that attest to the scientific veracity of the study are not that significant in this case. The message is: the fresher variety had more bacteria. Specifically, E. Coli and Staph Aureus were higher in the fresh samples. The investigators concluded that "...the microbiological quality of industrially processed sushi is higher than that of freshly prepared sushi..." once again raising my suspicions that people who write scientific food articles do not love food very much (This column is not a scientific article-it is merely a report.)

The article does however point out that the preparation of sushi lies in the skills and the hands of cooks, so that perhaps when you're shelling out your last born's college education at the next high-end sushi restaurant, you may want to wonder where the chef's hands have been. Admittedly, I never do this, since once I subject myself to one of my favorite past times -- eating out -- I hand my fate over to the Food Gods who have been mostly kind to me over the years. (I don't entirely buy the restaurant open kitchen concept, although it at least seems to reduce the possibility of a kitchen overrun with creatures I would rather not think of.)

But since I am on a rant here about the perils of fresh sushi, may I also point out that when Eli Saddler of gotmercury.org a campaign of California-based Sea Turtle Restoration Project, went to six top sushi restaurants in Los Angeles to test mercury levels in the fish they serve, he found that tuna sent to the laboratory returned an average mercury level of 0.721 parts per million, about 88 percent higher than the reported Food and Drug Administration level of 0.383 ppm for all fresh and frozen tuna. Now, unless this lab pipetted with mercury-laden instruments (are pipettes even involved in measuring mercury?), this again is not good news for fish lovers.

One food authority and owner of an LA-based sushi restaurant pointed out that this still did not make meat or chicken safer. Agreed -- there were no control groups for either in the studies that have been done so far. (I shudder to think about what the bacterial counts are in the chicken cordon bleu that didn't quite catch the heat at its center and masquerades as a plum lodged in this "new version" in ambient light.)

Again, I don't see how we can resolve this scientific debate unless we include meat and chicken control groups, and then one group that just plain starves or eats a food substitute for the duration of the study in the same environment. (This will not be me volunteering to be a starvation-control in this study, since I am not likely to have much self control, especially if the food smells good.)

But seriously here -- what do we do about these miscellaneous reports of food contamination? If you have ever been a victim, then you know that this is no laughing matter, but you have to admit, we, in the US, seem to be one of the most contamination-averse societies on this planet (I am not sure what's happening in the rest of the galaxy, but now that we have set foot on the Moon, for examples -- gravity issues aside -- I am sure we have begun to give our bacterial friends a feel for space travel as well.)

So what should you do? I suggest that the next time you are planning to have a romantic night out at a notable sushi restaurant, ask for a mercury count, bacterial count (in log CFU/g) and make sure that if this is not available, that you bring along a doggie bag so that you can freeze those delicious babies before taking a stab at living peacefully with bacteria.

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