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Is 'Tuna Scrape' The 'Pink Slime' Of Sushi?

The fact that there has been a salmonella outbreak among people who eat sushi isn't super surprising; raw seafood does pose more health risks than cooked fish.

But the fact that the fish implicated in the outbreak is something called "tuna scrape" sure got our attention here at The Salt.

According to the Food and Drug Administration's recall notice, tuna scrape is "tuna backmeat, which is specifically scraped off from the bones, and looks like a ground product." In other words, tuna hamburger.

The product, Nakaochi Scrape, was sold frozen to restaurants and supermarkets, which used it to make sushi, particularly spicy tuna rolls. Of the 116 people in 20 states and the District of Columbia who have fallen ill so far, many reported they had eaten spicy tuna rolls. The distributor has recalled 58,828 pounds of the stuff.

Given all the commotion over "pink slime," a derogatory moniker for processed beef trimmings, the notion of frozen tuna goo being used to make sushi is less than appetizing. But is it any more dangerous than regular sushi?

To find out, we called up Michael Doyle, director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia. He was just about to jet off to a big food safety conference in China.

This was the first he had heard of tuna scrape. But, he added, "There are a lot of things we haven't heard of that the industry is doing."

He said there are two things to consider when thinking about health and ground up fish. The first is the fact that the tuna scrape is served raw. "My rule of thumb is that raw food of animal origin should be cooked before it's eaten."

The second issue is whether grinding the fish creates the potential for more problems. That's been the case with hamburger, because contamination from one carcass can be spread through an entire batch. "For chicken, turkey and beef, the ground product tends to be more contaminated than the whole cuts," Doyle says.

Is that also true for fish? "I don't think enough research has been done on these products," he responds.

There's also a third thing to consider in this case. Just because a food has been frozen doesn't mean it's germ-free.

Freezing is good at killing parasites, Doyle says, but bacteria like E. coli and Salmonella often snooze through a freezing, emerging from their slumber just as dangerous as before. Evidently the Salmonella bareilly that have sickened the people in this current outbreak just love chilling.

So there you have it. Raw fish, not as safe as cooked fish. Ground-up raw fish, who knows?

Given that the fish in the recall was imported, and fish is the No. 1 culprit in outbreaks caused by imported food, maybe it's time to lay off the spicy tuna rolls.

More than three-quarters of seafood consumed in the United States is imported.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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