What Exactly is Sushi Grade Fish?

Is sushi grade fish a real thing? To be blunt: No. In the United States there is no official criteria or system to define what type of seafood is sushi grade. Like many terms used in the seafood industry, sushi grade, sashimi grade, and similar sounding titles have more to do with marketing.

Fishmongers long ago realized the public will accept previously neglected fish if they simply give it a new name. The most famous example being Chilean sea bass, which sounds way more tasty than Patagonian toothfish. When it comes to fish being marketed as sushi grade it is the same thing: fresh yellowfin tuna sounds good but sashimi grade ahi sounds better.

Sushi Grade is an Unofficial Standard of Quality

This is not like choosing a steak, there is no official “Prime” or “Choice” equivalent in seafood. Fish inspectors focus on safety and legality, they do not grade like the USDA does to beef. Fun story – my very first day working at a local fish company, we were raided by federal fish inspectors. Today, with most of America eating imported seafood, these inspectors can’t keep up and most of it hits the market un-inspected.

When a company markets a product as sushi grade fish, what they are really saying is “this is the best that we have.” However, that is not the same as “this is the best you can get.” It is up to each fish dealer to determine what they see as sushi grade, since there is no official quality standard. Any reputable dealer will reserve these terms for the best-looking, cleanest trimmed, fish. You are most often going to get high quality fish…just don’t think there is some official regulatory body putting their stamp of approval.

salmon nigiri sushi grade

Sushi Regulations Focus on Human Health

The United States standards for sushi fish focus strictly on human health standpoint, not appearance or quality. I’ve picked enough worms out of fish fillets in “candling rooms” to know about fish parasites. The worms themselves are mostly harmless, just unsightly. It is what you don’t see, like their eggs, that can cause health problems. Some of these are harmless to humans but many others, like those that infest salmon can really mess you up. If the fish is not going to be cooked, another way must be used to kill off any potential parasites.

FDA Regulations for Raw Fish Preparations

Although not all sushi contains raw fish, any fish that will be eaten raw must first be frozen and stored for at least a week at -4F. This FDA guideline is to ensure that these fish parasites and their eggs are killed off.

FDA Food Code 3-402.11-12

  • (1) Frozen and stored at a temperature of -20°C
    • (-4°F or below for a minimum of 168 hours (7 days) in a freezer)
  • (2) Frozen at -35°C (-31°F) or below until solid and stored at -35°C
    • (-31°F or below for a minimum of 15 hours)
  • (3) Frozen at -35°C (-31°F) or below until solid and stored at -20°C
    • (-4°F or below for a minimum of 24 hours.)

Exceptions to the rules above:

  • (1) Molluscan shellfish;
  • (2) A scallop product consisting only of the shucked adductor muscle;
  • (3) Tuna of the species:
    • Thunnus alalunga
    • Thunnus albacares (Yellowfin tuna)
    • Thunnus atlanticus
    • Thunnus maccoyii (Bluefin tuna, Southern)
    • Thunnus obesus (Bigeye tuna),
    • Thunnus thynnus (Bluefin tuna, Northern)
  • (4) Aquacultured fish, such as salmon, that:
    • (a) If raised in open water, are raised in net-pens, or
    • (b) Are raised in land-based operations such as ponds or tanks, and
    • (c) Are fed formulated feed, such as pellets, that contains no live
    • parasites infective to the aquacultured FISH.
  • (5) FISH eggs that have been removed from the skein and rinsed.
FDA Food Code 2022: Section 3-402.11 (edited)

Of course, these safety standards go right out the window, regardless of fish quality, if it is cross-contaminated with fish not prepared for sushi. Using the same cutting boards and knives, not changing food-prep gloves, even storing sushi and non-sushi fish together can all lead to contamination and sickness. Experience sushi chefs have not problem following these rules. In fact a friend of mine who just set up a sushi bar in their restaurant, once told me the most difficult part is actually the rice, not the fish.

I for one, love sushi but I will leave it up to the pros. I once treated a Japanese friend with raw bluefin that was caught only hours before, I’m not so sure I would do that today. My favorite sushi are usually cooked or cured anyway. My favorite is unagi, which is grilled eel. Unagi can only be served cooked because eel blood is toxic to humans. Salmon parasites are on the rise, and I love salmon nigiri, but I only get smoked salmon.

unagi nigiri sushi grade

For the sake your health and the health of others, please take raw fish preparation seriously. Follow the guidelines to ensure your sushi and sashimi is both healthy and delicious.