New Ontario health regulation affects sushi restaurants - UPDATE!
Freezing out sushi
Chefs and sushi lovers say the Japanese specialty will cease to be a delicacy after a new health regulation demands that raw fish be frozen before serving.
By JOHN ALLEMANG
Saturday, September 25, 2004 - Page M1
Could this be the end of sushi as we know it?
The bracing brininess of sea urchin and the lingering meaty taste of fresh tuna will soon be a thing of the past with a new Ontario health regulation that forces sushi masters to use only frozen seafood in their raw-fish specialties.
The government ban on fresh fish, which went into effect on September 1 and which extends to sashimi, fish tartare, ceviche and cold-smoked fish, has left many chefs and diners dismayed at what they see as a move that sacrifices culinary traditions to heavy-handed hygienic principles.
"I am terribly dismayed," says Josh Josephson, a research optometrist and eyewear-store president whose passion for good food is legendary in Toronto's best kitchens. "This just doesn't make sense. Freezing fish changes both the texture and the flavour -- we're going to lose the clean, subtle taste that you can only get from fresh raw fish."
Chefs who specialize in the demanding arts of sushi and sashimi are equally perplexed. "This is a huge headache for me," says Hiro Yoshida of Hiro Sushi in Toronto's St. Lawrence neighbourhood. "I don't want to serve frozen fish to my customers. They come to my restaurant specifically for fresh fish."
Mr. Yoshida looks at the display case in front of his popular sushi bar and rhymes off the fresh fish that will be affected by the new regulation -- salmon, sardine, Spanish mackerel, horse mackerel, fluke, Nova Scotia sea urchin. "There's no way you can freeze sea urchin," he says. "When you defrost it, it just melts away."
The mood was the same at Ichi Riki restaurant just east of Yorkville, where Minoru Seiriki was trying to get a handle on how his raw-fish business will be compromised. "Snapper is far too soggy when you thaw it," he says, "and it looks just miserable. Giant clam, if you try to freeze it, turns into rubber. You can see why we don't welcome this law."
Sushi and sashimi have been eaten in Japan for centuries without much incident, but their rising popularity in Toronto, coupled with Ontario's increased emphasis on food safety, has created a showdown that the government is much better placed to win.
"We in Ontario haven't had any reports of diseases per se," says Karim Kurji, the province's associate chief medical officer of health and an admitted sushi-lover. "But our concern is to do this on a precautionary basis rather than react to a disease when it shows up."
This advance strike against sushi's fish-borne parasites, however, may be an overreaction to a problem that hasn't been proved to exist here. "In my 28 years of doing tropical medicine, I've never seen a single case," says Jay Keystone, a doctor at Toronto General Hospital's tropical-disease unit. "It can't be that common."
"I think there are more significant issues in food safety such as salmonella," says Marilyn Lee, a professor of public health at Ryerson University.
There is no question that many wild ocean fish carry parasitic roundworms -- one U.S. study suggests 5 to 10 per cent, depending on the species. "They are a potential risk," says John Hoeve, a fish specialist at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. "Most parasites are more an aesthetic than a safety issue, but there are a few that are infectious to humans."
Prolonged freezing has been shown to kill the worms that chefs occasionally encounter, and the Ontario regulation requires fish that is served raw to have been frozen to minus 20 degrees for seven days or minus 35 degrees for 15 hours. Though this is based on codes developed by both Health Canada and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (which actually makes an exception for raw tuna in its regulation), Ontario is the only province to have turned a guideline into an all-or-nothing law.
"It's obvious Ontario is moving toward a you-must approach to food safety," says Terry Mundell, president of the Ontario Restaurant, Hotel and Motel Association.
Although public-health officials say they consulted the association in the development of new amendments to the Health Protection and Promotion Act, Mr. Mundell says the ban on fresh fish for raw consumption was not included in the final draft presented to his group. "It came as a surprise to us," he says.
As it did to Chris McDonald, chef at Avalon on Adelaide Street West, whose inventive menus regularly feature raw fish tartares, carpaccios and sashimi. "The point of serving raw fish is that you can say, 'This thing is perfect as it is.' But a fish that's been frozen is already compromised."
Public-health officials like to point out that some sushi delicacies are already being made from frozen fish -- tuna in particular is often frozen at sea, though more for economic reasons than health concerns. But Mr. McDonald isn't won over.
"This is just a case of the government trying to protect our health and lowering the quality of life in the process. Why do we all have to fall into line because of the fear that some unscrupulous chefs are perhaps endangering people?"
But fall into line they must, according to public-health inspectors who are already telling chefs they must come up with proof their fish has been frozen -- either visual evidence or documentation from their suppliers.
"We're making it clear to the restaurant people," says Judy Hope, manager of food safety for York Region Health Services, "that the liability is on them." Restaurants not complying with the new regulations face being shut down.
With the weight of liability hanging over his head, and the prospect of disappointed customers who won't line up for pre-frozen sashimi, Mr. Yoshida at Hiro is desperately looking for a bright side in this strange new development.
"Regulation is regulation," he says philosophically. "You have to follow it, so I will have to study frozen fish, and learn new techniques for marinating and flavouring. I'm going to call my teacher in Japan and find out more about the old-fashioned experiences."