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Originally published January 30, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified January 31, 2008 at 11:36 AM

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Taste of the Town

Mercury content in tuna? Here's the local reaction

The mercury content of tuna sushi recently made headlines, Nancy Leson did what any self-respecting sushi-lovin' restaurant columnist would do: she hit a handful of her favorite sushi bars to see, first-hand, the effect of the latest news.

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Nancy Leson on KPLU

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The chef smiled from behind his post at an Eastside sushi bar. "Got anything special?" I asked him. "Toro?" he suggested, pulling a loin of bluefin tuna from under the counter. I nodded, and he carefully sliced two thick pieces of buttery-fleshed fish, layering it over vinegared rice, later charging me $8.50 for the pleasure.

Pleasure — or poison?

That was the question asked over and over again last week when the nation's media reacted (or, as some suggest, overreacted) to a front-page story in The New York Times, one that raised hackles over the mercury content in tuna sushi sampled at 20 stores and restaurants in Manhattan. Those controversial findings caused mouths to roar worldwide.

From Newsweek to news radio, NBC's "Today" show to newspapers and Internet chat-rooms, tuna has once again taken a star-kissed turn as Big News, kicking off a conversation echoed in sushi bars and at seafood counters across the land.

Meanwhile, the environmental advocacy group Oceana released a separate report, "Hold the Mercury: How to Avoid Mercury When Buying Fish" (www.oceana.org), that fanned the flames, including an additional study of tuna samples from 26 U.S. cities, Seattle among them. (Oceana noted that yellowfin tuna from a local Costco, imported from the Philippines, and a serving of maguro procured at a Kirkland sushi bar contained acceptable amounts of methylmercury measured in parts per million.)

Gauntlet thrown, a resounding response was heard from international fisheries and a national consumer group disputing The New York Times claims. Strong words were bandied about, including but not limited to "distorted," "alarmist" and my favorite, "yellow(fin) journalism."

Toss in a recent "60 Minutes" video report on the bluefin-tuna industry, take careful note of the increase in sushi and fresh tuna consumption and — Presto! — we're hip-wader deep into a discussion that raises important questions ranging from health issues to seafood sustainability to whether the Feds need to get back on the stick and revisit their fish-consumption guidelines.

While I'm not a scientist, a regulator from the FDA or the EPA, nor a member of an advocacy group that leans one way or another, I am a sushi fanatic who regularly consumes tuna in its various forms. Which is to say I eat pretty high on the food chain. My diet — like that of the bluefin tuna that fueled the latest "scare" — potentially contains a higher amount of methylmercury than your average Joe. Which may or may not be frightening, depending on whom you're talking to. (Thank you Seattle-based fishing vessel St. Jude for giving us safer, sustainably caught tuna).

So with my eyebrow raised, I did what any self-respecting sushi-lovin' restaurant columnist would do: I hit a handful of my favorite sushi bars to see, first-hand, the effect of the latest news, and later chatted up sushi chefs, restaurateurs and fish-sellers to ask, "Whaddaya know?"

Maggie Taber, a Wellesley grad, avid fisherwoman and Shoreline resident, has been enjoying sushi for 27 years. After reading the New York Times story, she drove to Taka Sushi in Lynnwood, where she and her husband, Kelly, eat three or four times each month.

Mercury in tuna, I asked? "This is not news to me," says Taber. "Testing for it in sushi restaurants is interesting and new, and it's intriguing to see how much it varies. The analytical part of me wants to know, why does it vary? Is it the type of fish? Is it where it comes from?"

The answer? Yes and yes.

A tuna primer

There are five tuna species, and size and fat content play a part in determining the amount of methylmercury stored in the fish's body. Bluefin, the largest and fattiest in the tuna family, is more likely to have concentrated amounts — especially when it lives in the wild and grows to a ripe old age and many hundreds of pounds. What the tuna eats, where it's fished and whether it's farmed or "ranched" also plays into that equation (much of the bluefin we eat is caught at sea, towed to pens and fattened for market).

The global market for fresh wild bluefin has fisherfolk scouring the coasts of Japan, Maine, Mexico and the Mediterranean. Most of the bluefin available in Greater Seattle this week is farmed in Mexico and Australia, and like most of the sushi-grade seafood eaten hereabouts, it's supplied by only a handful of local seafood distributors.

Bigeye tuna sold as the red-fleshed "maguro" is the most popular tuna sold as sushi. Albacore is the "white tuna" we find in cans, and the fish whose belly is a sushi- bar delicacy I'm especially fond of. Leaner yellowfin tuna is sold all over Greater Seattle as "seared rare ahi tuna," while skipjack — commonly found in cans marked "light" tuna — is the smallest of the commercially harvested species.

During her frequent forays to Taka Sushi, Taber said she's "pretty open to any of the tuna" chef Tomokatsu Takayama sells. She prefers maguro, though she'll occasionally indulge in the fattier and more expensive bluefin toro. Aware that tuna is known to have increased mercury content, she "wouldn't eat it every day." Nor, she says, would she eat it if she were pregnant.

These days, said Taber, everyone has a personal "don't eat" list. She cites co-workers who eat only organic foods; notes that she's given up her favorite fish, Chilean sea bass, because it's "fished beyond recovery, practically"; and refuses to buy and cook farmed salmon at home — though she'll turn a blind eye when it's served at a sushi bar.

Sally Behar of Edmonds, sitting opposite Taber at Taka, says she and her husband, Marv, consider bluefin tuna "our special treat." Like the Tabers, they eat tuna at the sushi bar nearly every week. "I had heard about mercury in regards to canned tuna a long time ago," Behar says. "It seems to come up every once in a while." But it's not the mercury that worries her, she notes, claiming that the amount she eats in a given week is negligible. She's more concerned about overfishing — something she views as a "worldwide issue."

Where's the tuna?

Anita Saito has the same concern. She says she's very careful about sourcing the bluefin her husband, Yutaka, serves at Saito's in Belltown, which explains the dearth of it on my recent visits. "We haven't regularly carried bluefin for more than seven months," she says, noting that instead, they're spending $180 per pound for marble-grade Japanese Kobe beef — a fatty alternative to the bluefin, used to create a beefy version of sushi nigiri.

After reading "The Sushi Economy," a book that delves deeply into the bluefin-tuna industry and chronicles the depletion of the Mediterranean bluefin stocks, Saito stopped buying the ranched fish, preferring wild bluefin from Japan and Australia — when it's available. "I had people really, really upset when I took the Mediterranean bluefin off the menu. Every day, I was explaining about how it was overfished, and people were still wanting it. It will be interesting for me to see if the mercury scare will keep people from ordering it — because the possibility of extinction didn't."

At Kisaku, near Green Lake, Ryu Nakano is buying ranched bluefin from Australia this week while answering questions regarding mercury content. The fish, he says, is less likely to have harmful concentrations of mercury because it's caught small and farm-fed. He, too, acknowledges the consequences of sweeping the oceans for small tuna and fattening them in pens. "But that's a different subject." One that hasn't kept his regular customers from ordering their beloved toro. "In the past few days, I'm selling toro as much as I usually do," he says.

Mercury-count aside, "bluefin tuna-fishing is not sustainable, but they keep selling them because people want them," insists Taichi Kitamura, owner/chef of Chiso and Chiso Kappo, in Fremont. "A sushi restaurant without nice toro is considered a lesser-quality sushi restaurant." With the recent scare, he says, "it's a win-win situation": an excuse to stop buying the expensive bluefin whose profit margins are slim, while doing right by a species whose days might be numbered. When asked if he'll ever give up selling it, Kitamura laughs and says, "It may come to that."

Required reading

"Tuna is a loss-leader for restaurants and in the supply chain," agrees Sasha Issenberg, author of "The Sushi Economy" (required reading for anyone interested in the subject of sushi in general and bluefin in particular). "I'm not a nutritionist or a marine biologist, but there's certainly a lot more studies that look at little old ladies in Japan who seem to be in remarkable health. And that seems to suggest there can't be anything too bad in the fish at the sushi bar.

"But the oceans have undergone a radical change in the last generation, he says. "It's changed not only the business but the physiology of the fish, and it's inevitable that it will find its way back to us at the dinner table." He's convinced that farming, especially for tuna, offers "the Holy Grail" — increasing the available supply, addressing problems of mercury and the rising cost of bluefin.

If Anita Saito has her way, she'll soon be buying farmed sushi from A-Marine Kindai. This brand-name fish, bred and raised in captivity, represents a technological breakthrough by the fisheries laboratory at Japan's Kinki University. So far, limited quantities have limited distribution, even for those who can afford it.

Meanwhile, those who can't afford the cost of bluefin may be wondering whether any of the tuna they're eating is safe for consumption. My suggestion: Read up, then eat up — at your discretion. Or as Taichi Kitamura says, "Be informed, make your own decisions. The beauty of sushi is you get to choose. If you don't want it, don't eat it."

Nancy Leson: 206-464-8838 or nleson@seattletimes.com. More columns at seattletimes.com/nancyleson.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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