New York Regulations Put Fresh Sushi on Ice

Published July 20, 2015

New York’s sushi restaurants have long boasted the freshest fish in the city, but new regulations taking effect in August will remove that distinction.

The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene regulations will require fish served raw, undercooked, or marinated raw in dishes such as ceviche must first be frozen to guard against parasites.

By the end of summer, all fish used in sushi, sashimi, tartare, and other popular raw dishes must be kept in the freezer for one hour before it can be served to customers.

Freezing Doesn’t Eliminate Risks

Although there are benefits to freezing fish before serving it in a raw preparation, this process doesn’t eliminate the risk of eating uncooked fish, says Julie Kelly, a cooking teacher, writer, and policy advisor for The Heartland Institute, which publishes Health Care News.

Kelly says one problem is freezers must remain at a certain temperature.

“If you’re a large-scale sushi chain that can afford commercial-grade freezers, that’s great,” Kelly said. “But smaller vendors will have a tough time calibrating and maintaining that temperature for up to 15 hours, not to mention the space burden it imposes. And there is some evidence freezing doesn’t completely kill off all dangerous microorganisms.”

Defrosting the fish must also be done properly, Kelly says. It’s not a quick process, and if a timely system isn’t in place, it can be quite laborious and time-consuming for small restaurants.

Food handling is the main problem in restaurants, Kelly says. Preparers must take care when handling any raw ingredient, from fish to fruits to vegetables, as improper food handling is the source of most food-borne illnesses. Providing guidance about how to handle raw fish is a better approach than mandating a costly, laborious, imperfect, and largely unnecessary freezing process.

“The bottom line is people who love sushi—and I’m one of them—realize the small risk involved in eating it,” Kelly said. “But the taste and enjoyment are worth it.”

Another Nanny State Intrusion

The whole point of sushi is it’s supposed to be fresh, not frozen, says Seton Motley, president of the public policy organization Less Government.

“I don’t know how this helps or improves the ability of sushi restaurants to protect their customers, because it’s in their best interest to always serve the freshest product,” Motley said. “Otherwise, word gets out and the business will eventually fail.”

Motley says the nanny state is intruding once again where it has no business.

“This goes all the way back to the Constitution, which is supposed to be a shield to protect us from this sort of bureaucratic nonsense,” Motley said.

Dr. Gilbert Ross, executive director of the American Council on Science and Health, says the restaurateurs and chefs seem blithely unconcerned about these new regulations for freezing raw seafood.

“I was perturbed by the ‘better safe than sorry’ justification for the mandate, given the lack of either data or concern for the actual risk of parasitic diseases via raw seafood,” Ross said. “Therefore, I do wonder why these regulations are necessary.”

Sean Parnell ([email protected]) is a policy advisor to The Heartland Institute and president of Impact Policy Management, LLC.