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Originally published Sunday, May 4, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Danger may be the spice that makes fugu so tasty

Poison has been as integral to fugu, the funny-looking, potentially deadly puffer fish prized by Japanese gourmets, as the savor of its...

The New York Times

SHIMONOSEKI, Japan — Poison has been as integral to fugu, the funny-looking, potentially deadly puffer fish prized by Japanese gourmets, as the savor of its pricey meat. So consider fugu, but poison-free.

Thanks to advances in fugu research and farming, Japanese fish farmers are now mass-producing fugu as harmless as goldfish. Most important, they have taken the poison out of fugu's liver, considered both its most delicious and potentially most lethal part, one whose consumption has left countless Japanese dead over the centuries and whose sale remains illegal in the country.

But what could be seen as potential good news for gourmets has instead been grounds for controversy: Powerful interests in the fugu industry, playing on lingering safety fears, are fighting to keep the ban on fugu livers even from poison-free fish.

"We won't approve it," Hisashi Matsumura, the president of the Shimonoseki Fugu Association and vice president of the National Fugu Association, said of the legalization of fugu liver. He added, "We're not engaging in this irrelevant discussion."

Acting as a giant clearinghouse, this port city in southwestern Japan buys fugu from all over Japan and China, guts it and expertly removes its poison before shipping it throughout Japan and as far as New York City. Though Shimonoseki's share has fallen in recent years, it still controls about half of Japan's fugu market.

But Shimonoseki's business, predicated on the fact that fugu is poisonous, now faces a threat with the poison-free, farmed fugu liver.

Already, a district in Kyushu, south of here, defiantly serves it. A town in another district applied to be designated a special farmed-fugu liver-eating zone. And a group of scientists spreading awareness of farmed fugu liver across Japan served it in March at a Tokyo tasting event attended by some 40 chefs and restaurant-related businessmen. All ate. All survived.

Matsumura maintains that fugu liver, whether farmed or wild, is simply too dangerous.

But researchers and fish farmers said Shimonoseki opposed the legalization of farmed fugu liver simply because it feared losing its grip on the fugu market. Endorsing farmed fugu liver would be tantamount to acknowledging that Shimonoseki's role had become obsolete.

Shimonoseki's opposition, researchers and fish farmers said, is squelching the opening of new markets and depriving gourmands of the chance to sample fugu foie gras — which connoisseurs regard as more exquisite than the goose's (and which entails none of the ethical quandaries of force-feeding and is chock-full of healthful omega-3 fatty acids).

"They want to protect their vested interests," said Tamao Noguchi, a marine toxin specialist at Tokyo Healthcare University and a leading fugu expert.

It was Noguchi who, over eight years, conducted a study underpinning what two decades of fish farming in Japan had already shown: that fugu could be made poison-free by strictly controlling its feed.

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Decades earlier, another Japanese scientist had identified fugu's poison as tetrodotoxin, a powerful neurotoxin that leaves victims mentally aware while they suffer paralysis and, in the worst cases, die of heart failure or suffocation. There is no known antidote. Researchers surmised that fugu got the toxin by eating shells, starfish and other animals down the food chain carrying tetrodotoxin-laden bacteria, though they did not rule out the possibility that fugu produced the toxin on its own.

In the last three decades, though, researchers in Japan, the United States and elsewhere found that a wide range of animals, including newts, flatworms, frogs and octopuses, had the same tetrodotoxin. They did not produce the toxin, researchers concluded, but had ingested it and developed immunity to it.

By this year, Noguchi had tested more than 7,000 fugu in seven districts in Japan that had been given only feed free of the tetrodotoxin-laden bacteria. Not one was poisonous.

"When it wasn't known where fugu's poison came from, the mystery made for better conversation," Noguchi said. "Especially if alcohol came into the mix, the conversation became livelier. So, in effect, we took the romance out of fugu."

For centuries, Japanese were drawn to fugu despite, or perhaps because of, its poison. Expert chefs were able to separate the liver and other poisonous parts from the rest of the fish; only one-third of all wild fugu have enough poison to kill.

So chefs served liver after cleansing it of its poison through a traditional method; sometimes a trace of poison remained, not enough to kill, but enough to thrill by slightly numbing the lips.

Despite the precautions, Japanese kept dying. After accidentally losing a number of soldiers to fugu, Hideyoshi, the 16th-century warlord who unified Japan, banned it outright. But Japanese kept eating it surreptitiously, despite periodic bans. And fugu kept killing Japanese, including, in 1975, a kabuki actor, Bando Mitsugoro VIII.

Partly in response, the Ministry of Health made fugu liver illegal across the land. The number of deaths dropped, so that nowadays only a few Japanese die every year, not from eating it in restaurants but from fugu they have caught themselves.

The death rate also remains low because Japanese are increasingly eating the nonpoisonous farmed variety that has become almost as tasty as the wild kind. Because of overfishing, wild fugu accounts for only 10 percent of the total now sold in Japan.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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