Myth of Sushi Grade Fish

What is sushi grade fish?

There are several common misconceptions regarding what is “sushi grade” fish floating around the internet.  Some are so common, they are repeated over and over, both in articles and by the zillion comments people leave behind.  I’ve decided to tackle a few of the most common misconceptions and state why it’s a myth and my own personal opinions.

Myth 1: “Sushi Grade”

The term “Sushi Grade Fish” is a marketing term seafood retailers tag onto their products so they can command a higher price.  It is not a registered term by any federal agency and should not be used blindly as a guarantee for safety or freshness.

I’ve personally seen big box stores sell vacuumed packed frozen whole fish labelled as “sushi grade” only to look at the fine print on the product to see a “Not recommended to be consumed raw” warning.

Conversely, there is another fish retailer close to my house that sells fresh whole fish that can certainly be served as sushi even though they are not explicitly labelled as “sushi grade” fish.  I usually ask the fish monger that I’m explicitly consuming it raw and he will point me to his recommendations.

I won’t go into detail on what a “fresh fish” is.  This in itself requires another blog article!  In the meantime, you can find very good instructional guides to tell if a fish is fresh on the internet.

That doesn’t mean you should totally ignore fish that have been labelled “sushi grade”.  At reputable retailers, this is used to describe fish that they believe is of i) High enough quality to eat raw and ii) handled in a way to minimize parasite and bacterial contamination.

Myth 2: “Previously Frozen”

Another common myth is that “Sushi Grade”  means it was previously frozen to kill parasites.

“Sushi grade” does not mean the fish was previously frozen.  Not all fish are required to be frozen before eaten raw.  For example, depending on the source, bluefin tuna can safely consumed without prior freezing.

The FDA maintains a guideline which describes the risks for parasites in common fish species used for sushi.  It also publishes best practices that restaurants and retailers should follow if they wish to serve raw fish.  This includes instructions on length of freezing and temperature.

Myth 3: “It’s the law”

Yet another myth is that the United States and Canada have federal laws concerning the freezing of sushi grade fish before selling to the public.

Both the US and Canada do not have federal level laws that state raw fish must be frozen before serving to the public.  As mentioned previously, the FDA publishes guidelines, but these are not enforced at the federal level.  It is up to individual municipalities and counties to optionally use the FDA guidelines when enacting their local laws.

This means you may eat previously frozen fish in New York City (which requires some species of fish to be frozen), but that fish may not have been previously frozen in another city.

Myth 4:  Always Eat Fresh, Never Frozen Fish

Unless you live by the ocean, most wild fish consumed will have been previously frozen at some time in its processing.  Many times, fish are flash frozen (frozen at very cold temperatures very quickly after initial processing) at sea, right on the boat.  They are then shipped in very cold temperatures to their destination where they are thawed (by the wholesaler or retailer/restaurant) and are either sold as is, cut into smaller chunks, or served to restaurant customers.

Sometimes, fish are labelled as “IQF”.  This means the fish was individually “quick” frozen at very cold tempters (around -35c).  This is way colder than home fridges can obtain and these cold temperatures helps lock in freshness.

Though many people believe fresh is best, flash frozen fish is often just as good as fresh fish.  One additional benefit about consuming flash frozen fish is that most parasites are killed off by the cold temperatures.  But this depends on the type of fish and the freezing mechanism.

Myth 5: A Clean Seafood Store

To minimize bacteria growth, fish needs to be handled properly all the way though the supply chain.  Not just at the seafood retailer.  The fish mongers I purchase sushi fish from all have pretty high standards in terms of their OWN handling of “sushi grade” fish.  Fish for raw consumption are usually not processed on the same line as “non-sushi grade” fish and if cut into fillets, are packaged in individually wrapped trys.  This is opposed to the fillets stacked on top of each other on an open bed of ice.

However, even with these fish retailers, they often receive pre-gutted whole fish from their suppliers.  This means the fish has already been processed and handled in some way and it is almost impossible for the consumer to know if the supplier handled “sushi grade” fish appropriately.  Some retailers check with their supplier on fish they intend to mark as “sushi grade” but others do not.

It really comes down to asking questions and trusting the fish monger.

Myth 6: Sustainable Fish

Some websites and stores say that part of “sushi grade” means that it comes from a sustainable source.  They also say that non-sustainable fish such as bluefin tuna are high in mercury and should not be eaten.

The term sushi grade does NOT have anything to do with the sustainability of the fish species.  Though it is true that bluefin tuna have higher concentration of mercury and should be eaten in limited quantities, the term “sushi grade” does not pertain to this.

Myth 7: Trusting the Store

Some fish mongers take great pride in the quality they provide to their customers.  They know their product well and sell fresh seafood.  However, this is usually applies only to the store owner and experienced staff.  At big box stores and even local high quality seafood retailers, I’ve dealt with staff that have little or no seafood experience.  So you do need some common sense when you talk to the person behind the counter.  Make sure they know what they are talking about.

Myth 8: Japanese store

Some youtubers and blog posts recommend always going to a Japanese fish store. This is hogwash.  I’m Japanese Canadian and have a couple very good Japanese seafood retailers that I frequent, however, I still sometimes purchase fish I’m going to make sushi from non-Japan (non-asian) seafood stores.

Myth 9: Fresh = Good Taste

Freshness does not guarantee a tasty fish.

High end Japanese restaurants look for more than just freshness when looking for fish to serve raw.  Some fish species, like bluefin tuna, have a high level of flavor and texture variation even among fresh fish.  It is up to the skills of the chef to determine which fish will produce good sushi/sashimi.  Remember sushi and sashimi is more than just eating fresh raw fish.  It also involves the preparation and processing of the fish (among other ingredients) to create a high quality meal.

Myth 10: Only Eat Sushi at a Restaurant.

There are some fear mongering websites that state that you should only eat sushi at a restaurant.  They often tout that:

  • Regular people do not have the skills to find fresh fish
  • Are not trained to detect parasites
  • Do not have the still to make sushi and sashimi.

This is just ridiculous.  We’ve all seen sketchy sushi restaurants on the side of the road.  Just because it is served at a restaurant does not mean it is high quality.  Though it is true that consuming raw fish has its risks, if you follow the best practices, you will be limiting your risk to a negligible amount.

And finally, though I have heard of some sushi chefs saying “always eat sushi at a restaurant” , most chefs encourage having fun and preparing sushi at home.  Sure it might not look as nice or taste as good, but if you have fresh fish, keep it cool and have fun, that is what life is all about.

Beware that some YouTube channels that show you how make “sushi at home” are actually operated by (or have partnerships) with  online fish stores selling highly marked up “mail order sushi grade fish”.  They often over stress the need to buy fish only labeled as “sushi grade” (which we have just proved false by the arguments above) and try and scare viewers to purchase their product.

Myth 11: Higher Price is Better

Higher price does not always equate to better quality “sushi grade fish”.  Where I live, there are some Japanese fish stores that sell really high quality fresh fish, but their prices are quite expensive.  After much researching, I found a couple other non-asian fish mongers that not only sell fish of the same quality, but also have more variety!

Final Comments

Be wary of blindly trusting what people say in the comments section about “sushi grade”.  You don’t know who they are and where they got that information.  Don’t be fooled into only buying fish labelled as “sushi grade”.  Not only dose this lead to a sense of false safety, you end up overpaying in the long run.

Don’t compensate by buying non-fresh fish because you really desire to eat that kind of fish for dinner. This is how you get sick.  All your senses are telling you this fish no good for sushi, but if you really want it you are more likely to make a bad decision.  Instead, at the store, ask what is fresh, then of these choices, decide what to purchase.  Go to the store without a decision on fish type.

The key to purchasing “sushi grade” fish is to know your fish monger.  He/She should know where the fish came from and how it was processed before receiving it.   Go to a store that takes pride in selling quality fish products.

  • If buying a whole fish, trust your senses.
  • If the “sushi grade” fish is sold in smaller blocks (without the skin) wrapped in plastic wrap, ask questions. Find out how fresh it truly is.

But in the end, you senses are not enough.  Retailers do everything possible to make fish look fresh, so you need to trust your seafood retailer.  You have to know that fish they are selling has been processed in the best way possible to reduce bacteria and kill off parasites.  If you don’t trust where your food is coming from, I suggest going elsewhere.

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