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Is Sushi Safe to Eat?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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Sushi, a popular Japanese food which often contains raw fish, has been the question of some inquiries about food safety. Some people worry about whether it is safe to eat, because raw foods typically carry a higher risk of food borne illness. Some species of fish are also contaminated with mercury and various chemicals, making people wonder about how much fish they should be eating, let alone whether the fish is raw or cooked. There are some things that make sushi safe to eat under certain conditions and not in others, so it's hard to draw a hard and fast line about how safe this food is.

Some people confuse sushi, a dish made with vinegared rice and other ingredients which sometimes include raw fish, with sashimi, a dish which contains raw fish alone. In some cases, people ensure their safety by only eating sushi that does not contain raw fish. Vegetarian rolls tends to be quite safe, as does sushi with fish which has been cured or cooked to eliminate potential sources of parasitic infection, along with bacteria which might have gathered on the fish.

In the case of sashimi and sushi made with raw fish, two factors go into making sushi safe: the type of fish, and how the fish is handled. As a general rule, freshwater fish species are not safe to eat raw, because they often contain parasites which can only be eliminated by cooking. Ocean species are less likely to have parasites, especially if they are handled properly, which brings up the second factor. The best fish are processed rapidly at sea and then frozen. Rapid processing removes the intestines before they have a chance to burst and allow bacteria and parasites into the body cavity. Freezing kills any parasites which might have lingered, rendering the fish safe to use.

Some nations have a sushi grade for fish labeling which is used on fish which has been well handled and quickly flash-frozen, indicating that this fish can safely be used in sushi. If it is kept cold until use and handled in a clean kitchen by a cook with clean hands, this fish is, as a general rule, very safe from a food-borne illness perspective, although cooked fish is generally safe. However, fish like tuna are very high in mercury, so people who eat lots of sushi may be at risk for mercury poisoning. For this reason, people may choose to avoid tuna, sea bass, and swordfish, as these fish can contain high levels of mercury.

There are certain people for whom sushi is not safe. People with compromised immune systems should not eat it, because if there are lingering parasites or bacteria, they could easily overwhelm the body while it was weak. It is also not recommended for pregnant women, both because of the increased risk of infection for the baby, and because consuming fish tainted with mercury could potentially lead to developmental delays for the growing baby.

If you want to be sure you're eating safe sushi, only eat dishes prepared by reputable cooks in commercial kitchens, where cooks have access to freezers which can get extremely cold, along with meticulously clean facilities. If you prepare this dish at home, buy sushi-grade fish and use it promptly, because your freezer probably does not get cold enough to keep the fish safe. Take care to wash your hands and all your kitchen surfaces before and after making sushi to keep bacteria to a minimum. Never eat sushi which has been sitting at room temperature.

DelightedCooking is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a DelightedCooking researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon321457 — On Feb 22, 2013

Where I am from, we call sushi "bait."

By cloudel — On Nov 22, 2012

My friends took me to the new sushi place in town, but no matter how much they tried to convince me how good the raw sushi was, I told them I was getting the cooked kind. I don't care if it is a delicacy. I only eat cooked food, because to me, the only safe sushi is cooked sushi.

By feasting — On Nov 22, 2012

@StarJo – I've read that the freezers reach 76 degrees below zero! Imagine having the job of going into that freezer to retrieve the fish!

What blows my mind is how impossible it is to tell that the fish has ever been frozen once it reaches my plate. It looks just as fresh, pliable, and pink as it ever was.

I think that many people believe they are eating fish that has never been frozen when they order sushi. They have no idea that the freezing was actually essential to make the sushi safe for their consumption.

By StarJo — On Nov 21, 2012

My only experience with sushi was sashimi, and I wasn't a huge fan of this. Raw fish just does not appeal to me much.

However, I am curious about the freezing process. How cold do these commercial freezers have to be in order to safely preserve the fish for making sushi?

By lighth0se33 — On Nov 20, 2012

I would advise against eating sushi that has been sitting out on a buffet table. I went to a hibachi sushi buffet, and while my friend got her hibachi food cooked on the grill right in front of her, I chose to eat the previously prepared sushi that had been sitting on ice for who knows how long.

I think that if I had known all that this article mentions about how to eat sushi safely, I wouldn't have gone near it. However, I was clueless, and I was absolutely green with nausea later.

By anon271676 — On May 28, 2012

This information has been out there for eons. It's old. How about something about how sushi (raw fish, seaweed nori, and sushi rice from Japan) is of concern since the earthquake in Japan? Few articles on this subject, sadly.

By anon107779 — On Aug 31, 2010

Actually fugu is legal in the US, but there are a lot of regulations for it. All fugu must be imported from Japan, and have been butchered by one of a select few distributors. You're probably safer eating fugu in the US (if you can find it) than anywhere else in the world.

By davis22 — On Jun 14, 2010

Have you guys ever heard of fugu? I’m pretty sure it’s illegal in the United States, but it’s a legendary food in Japan. Basically, it is prepared blowfish that is often served in the minimal, raw style of sushi. However, fugu requires a true master sushi chef to prepare, because the fish contains a toxin that can cause paralysis and even death in some cases. The slightest error will allow toxin to contaminate the food and potentially endanger the diner. It has become somewhat legendary for having killed a few foreign danger-junkies who wanted to have another extreme experience under their belts. It is often quite expensive and rare, but apparently tastes like nothing else.

By klorine — On Jun 14, 2010

Eww! That doesn’t sound pleasant at all astor. Perhaps it was just a fluke? I would tend to agree with you though, sushi, or any raw meat based food for that matter, probably isn’t something you want to take risks with. The consequences of poorly made sushi can be very unpleasant indeed.

By astor — On Jun 14, 2010

I once got really sick from sushi. I was in San Francisco and wanted to stop for Japanese. The people I was with were impatient and none of us really wanted to search for food for a long time, so we stopped at the first place we found, which was a little hole in the wall Japanese place. We ordered from the poorly translated menu and got our food within a few minutes. It didn’t taste very fresh or good for that matter, but I was hungry so I just ate what I ordered. Later that night I got really sick and had to lay on the couch for the rest of the night. I’m not sure if it was food poisoning or just poor, old ingredients, but it was not a pleasant experience. The lesson here, I guess, is not to eat sushi if the environment doesn’t seem clean or the employees seem careless.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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