Messing around with the world’s deadliest fish at your own peril

THE Health Ministry (MOH) has stepped up a gear with its “ikan buntal” (puffer fish) awareness effort considering that the deadly seafood delicacy has entered the country’s food chain.

In its latest poster entitled Ikan Buntal: Selamat atau Tidak? (literally “Save or Not to Consume Pufferfish”) which is made available on its Facebook page, MOH has told the Malaysian public to abstain from consuming the fish “if they are not confident that the fish is safe for consumption”.

“Puffer fish contain a poison known as tetrodotoxin that attacks the nerves and causes death to the victim,” explained MOH. “Almost all species of puffer fish contain toxins and can lead to poisoning when prepared/eaten in the wrong way.”

It added: “Accordingly, the public is advised to seek immediate treatment if there are symptoms of poisoning such as muscle weakness, nausea and vomiting within 30 minutes to two hours after eating puffer fish.”

This comes in the wake of reports that an elderly woman in Kluang, Johor died of poisoning last Saturday (March 25) while her husband was still being treated in the intensive care unit (ICU) at time of writing after consuming puffer fish.

83-year-old Lim Siew Guan lost her life after consuming some home fried puffer fish that neither she nor her husband had any idea that they were eating something that contained deadly toxins.

Despite having never heard of puffer fish or “drumstick fish” as it is known in Chinese, her husband had bought the fish from a regular fishmonger who visits their village in a van on a weekly basis.

Lim’s death was identified as food poisoning with neurological manifestation resulting in respiratory failure and irregular heart rate, possibly due to toxin ingestion from consuming the fish.

Japanese experience

A much sought-after and expensive delicacy, puffer fish or fugu is most renowned for its unique attributes (smooth texture) and the thrill derived from eating such a potentially fatal dish. Even seafood haven like Japan regards the puffer fish or fugu as both “a lethal fish and deadly seafood” whereby only highly trained chefs are permitted to handle the deadly fish.

Recall that in the 1980’s, on average almost one diner per week died in Japan from eating fugu but in recent years, the figures have fallen considerably with Japan seeing around six deaths annually, thanks to awareness and constant educational efforts by the relevant authorities.

In order to prepare fugu, Japanese chefs must first train tirelessly – preparing hundreds of fish at a cost of thousands of dollars – before being able to legally sell the fish in their restaurants. Chefs must be at least 20 years of age and generally train for between four and six years.

Despite the high risk that comes with preparing fugu, Tokyo’s city government has announced plans to ease restrictions that allow only highly trained chefs to serve the dish. Potentially, chefs that study for just one day will now be able to sell the deadly fish so long as they purchase from suppliers with the venomous parts removed.

Japanese government figures show that 23 people in Japan have died as a result of fugu poisoning since 2000. Figures from the Fugu Research Institute show that 50% of victims were poisoned by the liver, ovaries (43%), and skin (7%). Nearly all of these fatalities were a result of home preparation.

Illegal in Malaysia

Elaborating on safety measures, Health director-general Tan Sri Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah has shared that puffer fish are not allowed to be sold in Malaysia.

According to him, the sale of puffer fish is controlled under the Malaysian Fisheries Development Authority Act 1972 and that Section 13 of the Food Act 1983 prohibits the sale of any food that has in or upon it any substance which is poisonous, harmful or otherwise injurious to health.

Dr Noor Hisham further revealed data from the MOH’s Disease Control Division which show that 58 puffer fish poisoning incidents involving 18 deaths were reported in the country between 1985 and March 2023.

According to him, a survey conducted by MoH’s Food Safety and Quality Division (FSQD) in 2019 showed that 86 per cent of the respondents, which comprised the public, fishmongers, fishermen and cooks, had sufficient knowledge on the danger of consuming puffer fish.

Despite their deadly nature when consumed, puffer fish are freshwater fish do make adorable pets because of their large personalities. They are deemed to love interacting with humans and closely resemble their owners. – April 1, 2023

Main pic credit: Fine Dining Lovers

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