China OKs puffer fish encore on restau­rant ta­bles

China Daily (USA) - - LIFE - By LIU ZHIHUA li­uzhi­hua@chi­nadaily.com.cn

Af­ter nearly 20 years, Chi­nese au­thor­i­ties have lifted the ban on the sale of puffer fish.

Ear­lier this month, the Min­istry of Agri­cul­ture and the China Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion jointly is­sued a new reg­u­la­tion, al­low­ing cer­ti­fied com­pa­nies to raise the blow­fish, named for their in­flated ap­pear­ance, and sell pro­cessed prod­ucts.

Chi­nese peo­ple re­gard puffer fish or hetun — “river hog” in Chi­nese, as one of the most de­li­cious del­i­ca­cies the Yangtze River of­fers. The ear­li­est record of puffer fish con­sump­tion in the area dates back to Shan­hai­jing, a col­lec­tion of myth­i­cal leg­ends writ­ten more than 4,000 years ago.

How­ever, the fish con­tains tetrodotoxin, a lethal poi­son. A tiny amount can kill a hu­man in few hours. More­over, the poi­son that ex­ists in many parts of the fish, in­clud­ing the eyes, blood, ovaries, liver and other in­ner or­gans, can be­come more toxic once heated.

It needs skill to care­fully sep­a­rate the ed­i­ble parts, usu­ally the skin and meat, from the poi­sonous or­gans to cook the fish, and­such skills re­quire train­ing and ex­pe­ri­ence. Only a few chefs mas­ter the art, ac­cord­ing to Yang Zhan­wen, a fa­mous chef with ex­per­tise in Chi­nese and fu­sion cui­sine in Bei­jing.

In 1990s, the cen­tral gov­ern­ment of­fi­cially banned the fish from en­ter­ing the­mar­ket.

A pop­u­lar say­ing, “Risk your life to eat puffer fish”, re­flects the ap­peal of the blow­fish in China, and ac­cord­ing to Yang, serv­ing puffer fish is a more or less open prac­tice in many res­tau­rants, be­cause there is huge de­mand from din­ers, and “even the reg­u­la­tory au­thor­i­ties will turn a blind eye as long as no one reports to them”.

In fact, de­spite the gov­ern­ment’s ban on dis­tribut­ing and serv­ing puffer fish on the Chi­nese main­land, quite a few cities in China have be­come fa­mous for rais­ing puffer fish, such as Yangzhong in Jiangsu province, and Dalian in Liaon­ing province. Some farm own­ers have even be­came star en­trepreneurs that made news head­lines over the past years.

Puffer fish from these farms are ex­ported to loyal din­ers in Ja­pan and South Korea, but many are dis­trib­uted to Chi­nese mar­kets and res­tau­rants, ac­cord­ing to Yang.

How­ever, Yang em­pha­sizes, farm-raised puffer fish are much less poi­sonous than wild ones.

Yun Wuxin, a widely ac­claimed sci­ence writer on food safety, also says farm­raised puffer fish are much safer to eat.

In an ar­ti­cle he pub­lished in Ori­en­tal Out­look mag­a­zine, Yun ex­plains that tetrodotoxin builds in puffer fish through the food chain, and farms are able to con­trol the food sup­ply and wa­ter qual­ity rather strictly to avoid ac­cu­mu­la­tion of the poi­son in the fish.

More­over, there are dif­fer­ent kinds of puffer fish. While some have poi­sons mostly in in­ner or­gans, and some in al­most all parts of the body, oth­ers are less likely to ac­quire the toxin, which makes it prac­ti­cal to pro­vide low-toxic and even poi­son free puffer fish through farm­ing, Yun writes.

How­ever, the new reg­u­la­tion al­lows only cer­ti­fied com­pa­nies to raise two species of puffer fish, and the fish can only be dis­trib­uted as pro­cessed prod­ucts, not alive, Yun em­pha­sizes.

Chef Yang says he ap­plauds the gov­ern­ment’s new move to reg­u­late the farm­ing and sale of puffer fish.

In the past, de­spite the ban on puffer sale, many res­tau­rants and in­di­vid­u­als bought puffer fish se­cretly, which raised safety is­sues, es­pe­cially when the orig­i­nal sup­pli­ers of the fish were not trace­able. Now the new reg­u­la­tion sets clear prac­tices for the in­dus­try to fol­low, and buy­ers are able to buy puffer fish pro­duced with strict qual­ity con­trol, he says.

How­ever, an anony­mous ex­ec­u­tive of a fa­mous restau­rant chain says the new reg­u­la­tion only al­lows cer­tain farms to raise and sell puffer fish, and doesn’t al­low res­tau­rants to buy and cook liv­ing puffer fish — which means there will still be res­tau­rants buy­ing live spec­i­mens il­le­gally to sat­isfy din­ers.

ZHANG ZHUOJUN / FOR CHINA DAILY

The ban on the sale of puffer fish was lifted ear­lier this month.

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