2019 seems to have been the year poke went from niche to mainstream here in the US. These colorful bowls of lightly sauced raw fish, sometimes mixed with vegetables and grains, are everywhere. Most of the poke I’ve seen is usually made with yellowfin (ahi) tuna. Increased demand leads to increased imports, which has apparently led to an increase in scombroid fish poisoning. The FDA has recently requested recalls and also an import alert of various imports of yellowfin tuna, mostly from Vietnam.
What is Scombroid Poisoning?
Scombroid fish poisoning is one of the most common seafood poisonings and forms after oily fish like tuna and mackerel are not handled properly. The name derives from scombridae, the family that tuna and mackerel belong to. It is a unique food poisoning in that it originates with a naturally occurring amino acid in these fish.
Fish like yellowfin tuna have high levels of histidine, that when in contact with bacteria, form histamine, which leads to the sickness. This is compounded by the fact that many of these fish are caught in tropical or semi-tropical climates, increasing the risk of spoilage. An ahi tuna can reach toxic histamine levels within a few hours without proper refrigeration.
These oily fish must be chilled down right after being caught to stop histamine from forming. The fish also have to stay in a chilled condition during handling and processing. If histamine levels rise in scombrid fish, they are unsafe and unlike parasites, cooking or further freezing will not make the fish safe to eat.
What makes scombroid poisoning so tricky is that it can be passed on by what look like properly handled fish. While some of these unsafe fish may be in an actual state of decomposition, and easily discarded, usually the fish pass a visual inspection. This is why large tuna companies like Bumble Bee, inspect for histamine throughout their supply chain.
Scombroid Poisoning Symptoms
The most common symptoms of histamine or scombroid fish poisoning are tingling or burning sensation in the mouth, facial swelling, rash, hives and itchy skin, nausea, vomiting or diarrhea; these symptoms usually resolve within several hours without medical intervention.Source: FDA.gov
The effects of scombrotoxin can be felt in a little as 10 minutes after consuming tainted fish.
For the most part, these symptoms will go away on their own, but death is possible in extreme cases, which are thankfully rare. For most sufferers, it only feels like you’re going to die. Certain antihistamine medications can help with the symptoms, which can last from a few hours to a day or two.
Which Tuna Products Are Being Recalled
Most recently, the FDA has identified yellowfin tuna products originating from Truong Phu Xanh Co. LTD of Vietnam to have unsafe levels of histamine. This led to nearly 50 cases of poisoning starting in August. Yellowfin loins, poke cubes, ground tuna, and tuna steaks, distributed from this company going back to January 2019, need to be discarded. The company has ignored FDA requests for a voluntary recall, but an import alert allows for the seizure of their imports without further inspection.
This is not the only scombroid scare associated with tuna imports in 2019. Supermarket chain Kroger underwent a voluntary recall of yellowfin tuna in 16 states this past September. Although the FDA is working with the distributor, neither Kroger or FDA have disclosed the source of these tuna steaks. In October, Mical Seafood of Florida imposed a voluntary recall of similar yellowfin tuna products imported from Vietnam.
Tips To Avoid Scombroid Poisoning
Although it is not life-threatening for most people, scombroid poisoning can be a few hours to a few days of living hell. Due to the nature of this poisoning, and the fact most tuna consumers are far removed from the source, what can you do?
Since this tainted tuna seems to mostly originate from Vietnam, read labels and stay away from cheap imports. Very little of our imported seafood get inspected, which is why these recalls occur, we don’t know until someone gets sick. Like I said before you can’t cook it out, or freeze it out, and even if it looks nice and fresh at the seafood counter, it can still make you sick.
When it comes to dining out for tuna, scombroid poisoning has such a quick onset that any restaurant unknowingly serving spoiled ahi, will know pretty much immediately. But when you want to make your own poke, sushi, or grilled ahi steak, look first for domestic caught fish.
Another Reason to Choose Domestic Tuna Over Imports
Our domestic fisheries are much more stringent, have a shorter route to the consumer and are sustainably caught on both coasts. American fishermen make up a tiny percentage of the total yellowfin catch worldwide. Domestic tuna fishermen also tend to have modern gear and are able to get the fish chilled quickly. I can only speak for myself, but I’d rather spend a few more dollars for tuna that has less of a chance of being spoiled by the time it reaches my dinner plate.