How to Get Safer Sushi

Last week the New York Times caused a flap among fish lovers when it detected alarmingly high levels of mercury in several samples of tuna sushi bought from Manhattan restaurants and stores. The mercury in question comes largely from coal-fired power plants and other industrial smokestacks.  

Many sushi devotees knew about the lurking risks of mercury in fish, but these levels shocked everyone. In five of the stores tested, the mercury levels were so high that the EPA could take legal action to get the sushi off the market. 

I don’t eat sushi often, but two of my daughters eat it every week, and these results had me worried. My girls are in their twenties--childbearing age--which makes them prime targets for mercury hazards. Mercury stays in the body for years and is a neurotoxin that can cause developmental delays in children whose mothers’ bodies contained elevated mercury levels during pregnancy. 

My husband and I made sure our daughters saw the flurry of newspaper reports about the Times’ findings (including a funny Times spoof of where the presidential candidates stand on the sushi crisis). And while many of the articles included helpful information, they tended to look at the story from the point of view of individual diners and restaurant suppliers. 

But this shouldn’t end up as a story about should you or should you not order the bluefin. It raises much bigger questions, such as do we continue to build dirty coal-fired power plants that spread pollution through our skies, waters, and now our food. 

Granted, this is a complex issue to ponder when you are standing at the deli counter wondering what to eat for lunch. But by asking your local sushi maker, restaurant, or chain store to label what country their fish comes from, you can start exerting some influence over environmental safeguards and consumer information. 

You have a right to know, for instance, if your eel sushi comes from a farm in south China, for instance, where fish have been found to be contaminated with mercury heavy metals, flame retardant, and outlawed antibiotics. If you stop buying that eel it will send a signal to aquafarmers and Chinese officials. 

Just think of salmon. Five years ago, all salmon in the fish section looked the same. Now you can read the packaging to find out if the salmon is wild, organic, or farmed, from Alaska or Scotland, and even if it is naturally pink or dyed with food coloring. 

The most important thing you can do is educate yourself. Here are some helpful guidelines sushi lovers can use for: 

And, if sushi leaves you cold, here are some excellent recipes from world-renowned chefs like Eric Ripert and Nora Pouillon (and some NRDC amateurs) for cooking healthy, safe fish caught from sustainable fisheries.