Sushi Grade Fish Explained

With 4,000 plus sushi restaurants in the U.S., it is evident that people love sushi more than they care about raw fish safety concerns. To keep the public's trust, sushi shop owners must take extra care when sourcing their fish and other sushi ingredients. As an operator, you may wonder whether seafood labeled “sushi grade fish” is 100% safe for raw consumption. Read on to discover what the sushi grade label means and which seafood is ideal for making sushi rolls.

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What Is Sushi Grade Fish?

Sushi Grade Fish Platter

Sushi grade fish (or sashimi grade) is an unregulated term used to identify fish deemed safe for raw consumption. Most fish vendors will use the term "sushi grade" to indicate which of their supply is the freshest, highest quality, and treated with extra care to limit the risk of food-borne illnesses. This usually involves putting the fish through a freezing process before selling it.

There is no official standard for sushi grade fish, so you shouldn't place your full faith in a sushi grade label. Since it's unregulated, the term sushi grade may be used as an unfounded marketing ploy to upsell fish without consequences.

FDA Regulation on Raw Fish

Although there are no actual guidelines in place to determine if a fish is sushi grade, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has regulations in place for the proper handling procedures of fish meant for raw consumption. The FDA has provided information on the different times and temperatures required for a variety of species of fish to be deemed safe. These are the general guidelines for what the FDA calls “Parasite Destruction Guarantee” that must be followed for most fish species after they are caught:

  • Freezing and storing at an ambient temperature of -4°F (-20°C) or below for 7 days (total time)
  • Freezing at an ambient temperature of -31°F (-35°C) or below until solid and storing at an ambient temperature of -4°F (-20°C) or below for 24 hours
  • Freezing at an ambient temperature of -31°F (-35°C) or below until solid and storing at an ambient temperature of -31°F (-35°C) or below for 15 hours

The low temperatures kill the parasites that may live in the fish when it's caught. However, this process needs to begin as soon as the fish is on the boat. They must be caught fast, bled and gutted upon capture, and frozen in a flash freezer within 8 hours of leaving the water. There are a lot of steps that go into keeping a fish safe to eat raw, which is why there will always be a risk to eating raw sushi or sashimi.

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What Is the Best Fish for Sushi?

Some fish are more susceptible to parasites than others, so you should familiarize yourself with fish species before blindly purchasing something with a sushi grade certification, especially if you intend to eat it raw. Here are the most common types of fish (excluding shellfish) used in raw sushi or sashimi.

  • Tuna – Tuna is resistant to parasites, so it’s one of the few species of fish considered safe to eat raw with minimal processing. This includes albacore, bigeye, bluefin, bonito, skipjack, and yellowfin tuna.
  • Salmon – If you're purchasing salmon for raw consumption, you should avoid wild caught and go with farmed salmon. Wild salmon spend a portion of their lives in fresh water, where they are at a higher risk of contracting parasites. Aquacultures raise salmon on parasite-free diets, so they’re safer to eat.
  • Yellowtail – Sushi menus often list yellowtail under its Japanese name, hamachi. Yellowtail can be high in mercury, so eat it in moderation.
  • Halibut/ Flounder – The terms halibut and flounder are interchangeable. Flounder is an umbrella term categorizing the entire flatfish family which includes halibut. Hirame is the Japanese word for halibut/flounder.
  • Gizzard Shad – This is also known as kohada.
  • Mackerel – This fish is also called saba or aji. Mackerel is usually treated with vinegar before serving and can be high in mercury.
  • Seabass – Also known as tai or suzuki, this fish is generally treated with vinegar before serving. It is high in mercury and should be eaten in moderation.
  • Farmed Fish Fish raised in an aquaculture are less likely to contract parasites and are considered safer to consume raw.
  • Warning: Freshwater fish are prone to parasites and should never be eaten raw. Thoroughly cook freshwater seafood to kill parasites before serving.

How to Buy Sushi Grade Fish

Sushi Grade Fish for sale in store

Restauranteurs should inspect sushi grade fish to make sure it’s fresh and safe to consume. The first step is to source seafood from a reputable fishmonger or market. If you’re not sure where to shop, ask your neighboring restaurants where they get their fish and look up reviews online. The location should receive regular shipments and have a knowledgeable staff. To determine whether fish is safe to consume raw, ask the market manager the following questions:

  • How do you define the term “sushi grade fish”?
  • Was the fish sustainably sourced?
  • How long has it been in the shop?
  • How often is the fish processing equipment sanitized?

You will also want to familiarize yourself with the species of fish you are purchasing and the characteristics of fresh seafood. Some aspects include:

  • Smells like seawater, not spoilage
  • Clear and slightly bulged eyes
  • Red gills
  • Firm flesh
  • Intact scales
  • Not slimy

How to Keep Sushi Grade Fish Fresh After Purchasing

Once you have purchased your fresh sushi grade fish, you’ll want to take extra care when you transport and prepare it to reduce the risk of food-borne illnesses. Seafood should be transported on ice. Depending on when you plan to use it, either refrigerate or freeze the fish immediately.

Thaw frozen fish in the refrigerator to prevent it from dropping into the temperature danger zone of 40 degrees Fahrenheit (4 degrees Celsius) or higher. When preparing the fish, keep your work area, tools, and hands clean to ensure that your sushi grade fish is as sanitary as possible before serving your sushi rolls.

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It may come as a surprise that seafood labeled “sushi grade fish” doesn’t have to meet any set standards. So next time you see a sushi grade certification, ask the vendor how they define the term.

Posted in: Food Safety|Kitchen & Cooking Tips|By Janine Jones
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