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Sushi Grade Fish Explained

Many of us love eating sushi, but if you’re a sushi enthusiast, you know that there is a risk when it comes to consuming raw fish. That is why it can be reassuring to see a “sushi grade fish” certification in the fish display while shopping at the supermarket. But, does that caption mean that the fish is 100% guaranteed safe to eat raw? Read on to discover what sushi grade means and which fish to pick when creating your very own sushi rolls.

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What Is Sushi Grade Fish?

Sushi Grade Fish Platter

Sushi grade fish (or sashimi grade) is a common term used to identify fish that is considered safe to be eaten raw. However, there is no official standard for the term and it is thought to be used primarily for marketing purposes, paired with more expensive cuts of fish.

Most fish vendors, though, 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 foodborne illnesses. This usually involves a freezing process that the fish will undergo before being sold. However, this is not a regulated term, so it is up to the vendor’s interpretation as to what they consider to be sushi grade.

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) does have 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 be living in the fish when caught. However, this process needs to begin right away once the fish is on the boat. They must be caught quickly, bled and gutted upon capture, and frozen thoroughly 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 it is important to be familiar with your fish species before just purchasing something with a sushi grade certification on it, especially if you intend on eating it raw. Here are the most common types of fish (excluding shellfish) used in raw sushi or sashimi.

  • Tuna. Tuna is considered to be one of the only species of fish that is safe enough to be consumed raw with minimal processing as it is highly resistant to parasites. This includes albacore, bigeye, bluefin, bonito, skipjack, and yellowfin tuna.
  • Salmon. If you are purchasing salmon for raw consumption, you should avoid wild caught and go with farmed salmon. Wild salmon spends a portion of its life in fresh water, where they are at a higher risk of contracting parasites. Aquacultured salmon is raised on a parasite-free diet and considered much safer to eat.
  • Yellowtail. You may find this listed as hamachi on a sushi menu under the Japanese name. It can be rather high in mercury, so it should be consumed in moderation.
  • Halibut/ Flounder. This may be listed as hirame in Japanese.
  • 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 that are raised in an aquaculture have a reduced risk of contracting parasites and are considered safer to consume raw.

It is important to note that freshwater fish should never be eaten raw as they are very prone to parasites. They should be cooked thoroughly to kill off the parasites before serving.

How to Buy Sushi Grade Fish

Sushi Grade Fish for sale in store

When purchasing sushi grade fish, there are a few aspects to consider to ensure the product is fresh and save to consume. You will want to make sure that you find a trusted fishmonger or market with a good reputation. That may mean asking neighboring restaurants who they use and looking up reviews online. The location should receive regular shipments and have a knowledgeable staff. Be sure to ask the right questions while you’re there, such as:

  • How do they define the term “sushi grade fish”?
  • Where did the fish come from?
  • How long has it been in the shop?
  • How often is the equipment used to process the fish sanitized?

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

  • Smells of the seawater and 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 in properly transporting and preparing it to reduce the risk of foodborne illnesses. Seafood should be transported on ice and refrigerated or frozen right away, depending on when it will be consumed.

If the fish is frozen, it should be thawed out in the refrigerator to prevent it from dropping into the temperature danger zone of 40 degrees Fahrenheit (4 degrees Celcius) 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.

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It may come as a surprise that the term “sushi grade fish” doesn’t necessarily have rules to play by. So next time you see a sushi grade certification, you may want to ask the vendor how they define the term.

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