The Salmonella Outbreak in Sushi: A One-Off or Something to Worry About?

From the end of January through the end of April 2012, 435 people from 28 states and the District of Columbia were infected with Salmonella Bareilly (410 cases) or Salmonella Nchanga (15 cases); although 55 of these individuals were hospitalized, no deaths were reported. The toutbreak was traced to a frozen raw yellowfin tuna product known as Nakaochi Scrape, produced by Moon Marine USA Corporation.

Stakeholders in the food safety industry generally agreed that the scale of the outbreak was rare in the seafood industry, so rare, in fact, that it may be unclear what can be learned from this incident. “This was an anomaly,” said Doug Brinsmade, a director of business development at Sea Delight, a seafood company based in Miami. “I’ve been in the business 25 years, and I’ve never heard of a such a widespread food safety issue in seafood. This was a one-time thing.”

Brinsmade attributed this recent lapse in safety oversight to the unique market pressures created by the weather phenomenon known as “La Niña,” which greatly disrupted tuna migrations globally and stymied the efforts of associated fishing fleets. “The bottom line is that in [the first half of this year], the tuna business has been very short of product,” he noted.

To make up for the shortage, seafood distributors resorted to using “scrape” tuna—back meat that is scraped from the bones of the fish—and purchased scrape from producers who were unaccustomed to processing this kind of tuna. In this case, that company was Moon Fishery (its U.S. distributor is Moon Marine USA Corp.) based in the state of Kerala, India. “This is not a place that we normally do a lot of importing from,” Brinsmade said.

The pressure of a tuna shortage may have also exacerbated the outbreak, Brinsmade believes, by encouraging rapid distribution of the product once it was imported to the U.S. (Sea Delight did not receive any product from Moon Marine, he noted.) “One of the reasons this incident received so much attention was that so many states were affected.”

Brinsmade pointed out that once the outbreak became apparent and was traced to its source, Moon Marine reacted quickly with a national recall and destruction of 58,000 pounds of product. However, Brinsmade said that despite the rare nature of the event and the efficiency of the recall, broader damage has been done.

He pointed out that the industry at large, and Sea Delight in particular, imports from tuna-producing countries all over the world: Sri Lanka, China, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Indonesia, but thanks to industry standards set in place in the late 1990’s, concerns about broader contamination are unwarranted. He criticized the FDA’s response to this isolated incident as too overbearing.

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