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Delicious, but Deadly: Should Fugu Liver be Served in Japan?

The following is a guest post by Sayuri Umeda, a foreign law specialist covering Japan and several other Asian jurisdictions at the Law Library of Congress. Sayuri has previously written blog posts about testing of older drivers in Japan, sentencing of parents who kill children, English translations of post-World War II South Korean laws, laws and regulations passed in the aftermath of the Great East Japan Earthquake, the legal deposit system in Japan, and highlighted our collections related to Japanese family law and Cambodian law.

Little fugu (photo by Flickr user Jim, Jan. 4, 2007; used under Creative Commons License, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/).

Little fugu (photo by Flickr user Jim, Jan. 4, 2007; used under Creative Commons License, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/).

Balloonfish or pufferfish (fugu) is regarded as an expensive, delicious, and dangerous fish in Japan. Tetrodotoxin, which can be contained in fugu, is an extremely potent poison (toxin). Only licensed persons can prepare and serve fugu. Since some parts of fugu, such as the liver, may contain more of the toxin, serving these parts is completely prohibited. However, due to its reputation for having exceptionally good taste, some people try to eat fugu liver. According to the Bureau of Social Welfare and Public Health, Tokyo Metropolitan Government, ten people died as a result of balloonfish poisoning between 2006 and 2015. I have actually tasted legally-prepared fugu muscle, skin, and testes, and definitely found them delicious, but of course have not tried the liver.

Several years ago, fish products company/restaurant, Manbo, cooperated in research conducted by a Japanese professor, Prof. Osamu Arakawa of Nagasaki University, on where or from what the toxin in fugu comes from. Prof. Arakawa and others published an article on the study in 2004. Prof. Arakawa found the toxin was from underwater bacteria that accumulate through the food chain and enter fugu through its eating of starfish and shellfish. According to the article, this means if fugu are raised in water without toxic bacteria, fugu will not have the toxin in their bodies.

In 2004, after raising and testing 1,000 fugu without the toxin, Manbo asked the Saga prefecture government to apply for special treatment for the specially raised fugu from the national government under the Food Sanitation Act (Act No. 233 of 1947) and the Structural Reform Special Zone system. This system was created in 2002 to reform regulations that are outdated by experimenting with deregulation in a limited area. The Food Sanitation Act prohibits sales of items that contain toxic or harmful substances. (Food Sanitation Act, art. 6, item 2.) However, if the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare (MHLW) specifies that such items involve no risk to human health, the prohibition can be removed. (Id.) For the Saga prefecture, such specification would be beneficial because the sale of fugu liver would attract tourists and contribute to the local economy. In 2005, the MHLW rejected the application, reasoning that they are not certain whether Manbo’s aquaculture methods always guarantee that fugu will not contain any toxin. In 2010, after 4,000 more fugu were raised and tested, the Saga government applied for the Special Reconstruction Zone for fugu liver again, but it was rejected for the same reason.

The Saga government established a third party committee to evaluate a new proposal from Manbo in 2013. In January 2016, the committee concluded the proposal was appropriate. Then, the Saga government and Manbo filed the proposal to make an exception to the food safety law with the MHLW in February 2016. The new proposal obligates Manbo to test a small piece of the liver of each balloonfish that it raises through aquaculture and requires Manbo to directly serve the fish liver in its own restaurant. The MHLW asked the Food Safety Commission to evaluate the proposal.

Other fugu restaurants do not want the exception for Manbo and Saga to be allowed. The National Fugu Association claims that, if the livers of balloonfish are allowed to be eaten, people will think that all balloonfish livers are safe. As a consequence, they argue, poisoning cases will increase, and then consumers will not trust the balloonfish food safety system and stop eating balloonfish altogether, causing economic harm to the businesses. In addition, the Association still says a test of a part of the liver does not guarantee the safety of the entire liver. There are many bloggers who criticize the Association, saying that their claims are not persuasive and they just want to keep the status quo.

The Food Safety Commission will make a decision on the application by early summer 2017. Even if it is approved, other businesses may not start to grow fugu in the same way since it is costly to conduct tests on all the fugu livers.

Have you tried, or would you like to try, fugu? Would you try fugu liver if the application is approved?

One Comment

  1. Sean Turnbow
    January 30, 2019 at 6:14 pm

    Fugu liver has and is being served in Oita Prefecture (Kyushu) since at least 2001 when I first tried it, and was still on the menu during my last visit in late 2016.

    It’s very tasty, and far more flavorful than any other part of the fish. Links are not permitted in the comments, so I’d recommend doing a Google search for “fugu liver Oita” which should help lead to an interesting read on this subject by the JapanVisitor website.

    Happy Eating!

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