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Toxic Tuna (Or, Why Bottom Feeding Is Good for You)

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Othe humanity.

According to an article published in the New York Times this week, the sushi being served at some of our favorite restaurants is so loaded with mercury that levels within one meal well exceed what the Environmental Protection Agency considers a safe level per a three week period. In fact, in a tested sample from Japonica (a NYU-area restaurant that we happen to love), the mercury dose in roughly one-and-one-half pieces of tuna was enough to reach the acceptable weekly dose of the poison. Of course, each meal contains more than one-and-one-half pieces of tuna – you’re often getting five times that. (The Times states that each piece weighed between .18 ounces and 1.26 ounces.)

This news is shocking. While the EPA had reported lower mercury levels in canned tuna back in 2004, it had not investigated the species of fresh tuna served in most sushi restaurants. The mercury levels that the Times found in fresh tuna were high enough to merit the Food and Drug Administration to remove it from the market as unsafe. Yikes…it seems that instead of tucking into healthy, diet-friendly sushi, we might as well have been snapping off the metal tips of thermometers and guzzling the contents.

This story is tragic for foodies (us in particular), because there’s nothing more delicious than raw, fresh, sashimi-grade tuna. As far as we’re concerned, there’s never a bad time to eat raw tuna—winter, summer, day, night, we could live on the stuff, and often do. We’re temped to simply disregard the Times’s findings and eat the sashimi-grade tuna anyway, just as we might drive faster than the speed limit while talking on our cellphones. We, as a nation, take stupid risks every day.

Sadly, Mercury poisoning, in case you want to know (if not, scroll down to today’s other post, The Shame of English Chocolate), is a neurotoxin – it causes nerve damage. It’s the chemical that made hatters mad in the 19th century. They used the mercury to process fabric in hats, and exposure to the metal caused those poor workers to go insane. While the haberdashers were using mercury directly, it actually leeches into the ecosystem in a variety of ways. Mercury occurs in small amounts naturally, and it’s created by industry—especially coal-fired power plants. Bacteria pick up the mercury-laden rain and runoff in waterways, fish eat the bacteria, bigger fish eat the smaller fish and so on. The biggest, meanest, longest-lived fish in the food chain (in this case bluefin tuna) inherit all the mercury handed up through the chain. And then we, biggest, meanest predator of them all, get the full load of it—wrapped in prettily in seaweed, studded with tomiko.

As we say, it’s a tragedy… but that doesn’t mean we have to give up sushi altogether. If you eat it, skip the big, sexy, expensive fishes like bluefin tuna and go for humbler, smaller fish like mackerel. When choosing, avoid E-Z-Order platters and select your maki individually from the a la carte menu. (Platters, arranged for broad appeal, rely heavily on tuna, and often have eight or more pieces of sushi in one serving.) If you’re unsure about what to choose, order your sushi deluxe platter but explain to your chef or waitress that you don’t want any tuna—they’ll be thrilled, because the fishes lower down on the food chain are also much cheaper. In the a la carte menu, go for saba rolls instead of tuna and salmon (salmon also has high mercury content): saba is the species of mackerel with the lowest mercury content. And if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, look for non-fish maki like natto rolls, made with fermented bean curd.

All of these options, plus lots of creative non-tuna and non-salmon rolls, are available at our two favorite everyday sushi bars: Toyo Sushi in Mamaroneck and Sushi Mike’s in Dobbs Ferry.

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