The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is advising consumers only to eat puffer fish (also known as fugu, bok, blowfish, globefish, swellfish, balloonfish, or sea squab) from two known safe sources. The safe sources are 1) imported puffer fish that have been processed and prepared by specially trained and certified fish cutters in the city of Shimonoseki, Japan, and 2) puffer fish caught in the mid-Atlantic coastal waters of the United States, typically between Virginia and New York. Puffer fish from all other sources potentially contain deadly toxins and therefore are not considered safe.
The liver, gonads (ovaries and testes), intestines, and skin of some puffer fish contain the toxins tetrodotoxin and/or saxitoxin. These toxins are more deadly than the poison cyanide and can affect a person’s central nervous system. There are no known antidotes for these toxins. Puffer fish must be cleaned and prepared properly so the organs containing the toxins are carefully removed and do not cross-contaminate the flesh of the fish. These toxins cannot be destroyed by cooking or freezing.
Symptoms resulting from ingesting either of the toxins include tingling of the lips and mouth, followed by dizziness, tingling in the extremities, problems with speaking, balance, muscle weakness and paralysis, vomiting, and diarrhea. These symptoms can begin anywhere from 20 minutes to 2 hours after eating the toxic fish. In extreme cases death can result from respiratory paralysis.
The Japanese government licenses specially trained fish cutters to process and prepare puffer fish. These fish are imported into the United States two to three times per year for special occasions, by only one approved New York importer, Wako International, under an FDA/Japanese government agreement. This is the only acceptable source of imported puffer fish. They are sold only to restaurants and dishes containing the fish are often very expensive, sometimes costing hundreds of dollars for a full meal.
Puffer fish caught from the mid-Atlantic coastal waters of the United States do not contain these deadly toxins and are considered safe to eat. They are less expensive than imported puffer fish and may be found in markets or restaurants. However, puffer fish caught off the east coast of Florida should not be eaten because the entire fish is potentially toxic.
Before ordering or buying puffer fish, consumers should ask where it came from to ensure it is from a known safe source. Consumers who are unsure of the source should not eat puffer fish.
*The description of the deadliness of the toxins was amended on January 17, 2014.