Fri, Jun 11, 2004 - Page 5 News List

Japan's scientists take the fear out of eating `fugu'


Blowfish has long been a delicacy only for the adventurous: every year in Japan, a few people are poisoned to death eating it.

Now scientists have put a school of pufferfish on a special diet and come up with a version that tastes just like the real thing -- without the lethal consequences.

"It's nice and soft," gushed Osamu Arakawa, a marine biologist heading the project at Nagasaki University. "As sashimi, you dip it in a citrus-flavored soy sauce -- it's delicious."

Eating pufferfish -- known in Japanese as fugu -- is not always so carefree.

The powerful poison tetrodotoxin is found in the ovaries, liver and intestines, and only specially licensed chefs are qualified to prepare the fish for human consumption.

Still, fugu remains a final meal for some. Three diners died in Japan last year from pufferfish poisoning after preparing the dish at home, according to government figures.

Researchers in Nagasaki are getting over that potentially deadly hurdle by examining the fish's diet.

"We believe that pufferfish acquire poison by eating poisonous food, such as starfish and shellfish, rather than producing it themselves. So we fed them nonpoisonous food," Arakawa said.

He and his colleagues kept about 5,000 fugu on a strict regime of mackerel and other nonpoisonous food at seven locations along Japan's west coast from 2001 to last year.

They also raised their specimens in water at least 10m above the seafloor or in purified tanks to minimize their exposure to toxins.

Arakawa says it worked. For two years, the group examined the fish every month, and they all tested negative for tetrodotoxin each time.

The fish has not yet gone into mass production for sale, but it's already causing a stir.

Some in the tourist industry are ready to promote the new fugu. A hot springs resort near Nagasaki is trying to obtain a special government permit to allow hotels and restaurants to serve the liver -- normally the most lethal part of the fish.

Japanese officials are cautious.

"The finding is a great scientific achievement, but it does not immediately mean we can guarantee food safety," said Masanori Imagawa, a Health Ministry official. "When it comes to fugu, we can't afford any mistakes."

The fish could draw some diners who have long wanted to try fugu but feared the poison. Its meat is firm and light when served raw as sashimi, and succulent when cooked in a stew.

But some pufferfish fans are sure to balk. For many, the brush with death is part of the allure of the meal, and some diners go as far as indulging in the liver -- though not until the poison has been soaked out.

Takeshi Yamasuge, a fugu restaurant owner near Tokyo, chuckled when asked about poison-less fugu.

He said his customers prefer the real thing, despite hefty prices that go as high as ?25,000 (US$230) per kilogram.

"Nontoxic fugu is boring," he declared. "Fugu is exciting because it's toxic."

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