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Dining

The crisis in Japan has many questioning the safety of our sushi

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Nuclear tuna: what sushi is safe to eat in the Valley?
Illustration: Ryan Olbrysh
E.C. Gladstone

Every day in Las Vegas, we eat things we know aren’t good for us—refined sugar, saturated fats, deep-fried Twinkies. But the threat of food tainted by radiation—which can cause premature aging, mutations in unborn fetuses and cancer—is another thing altogether.

So concerns over fish exposed to radiation from Japan’s failed Fukushima nuclear plant are certainly understandable. Las Vegas is home to a number of high-end sushi restaurants, many under the auspices of world-renowned chefs who are proud to cite the source of their product. “Our fish gets flown in from Tsukiji every 24 hours,” says Tom Cardenas, vice president of operations at IDG (which operates Sushi Roku in the Forum Shops), referring to Tokyo’s renowned central fish market, currently under scrutiny.

“The number of guests that were fearful that they were being served Japanese fish surprised us,” admits Jet Tila, executive chef of Wazuzu at Encore (and a Weekly contributor). Diners are asking at Sushi Roku, too, says Cardenas. “But these are people in the restaurant eating. How many people are not saying anything and not coming?”

That, of course, is harder to measure, but the variety of responses to the crisis underscores Vegas’ constant challenge to balance responsibility with avoiding negative controversy. On one extreme, Wynn Resorts declared a ban on any fish imports from Japanese waters almost instantaneously after the emergency last month, according to Tila. “We’ve had to re-source a number of fish: hamachi, snapper and kanpachi,” says Wazuzu’s chef de cuisine Scott Okazaki. On the other hand, MGM Resorts has essentially changed nothing. “Our response was to take guidance from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration,” says Tim Jones, executive director of safety and health for MGM. “Their guidance has been that there is no concern for radiation contamination from Japan.”

Behind the scenes, MGM may actually be more vigilant than their official words indicate. “MGM specifically called us to ask if we could do [radiation testing],” says Mike Wittenberg, vice president of sales at Emeryville, California-based Micro Analytical Systems, the company behind Safe Harbor seafood testing. The current crisis has proved a timely opportunity for his company, which has signed on 51 clients in town since launching Las Vegas operations at the beginning of this year. Until now, their program (the first such proactive service in the country) included testing for mercury, histamines and pathogens such as E. coli and salmonella, at a cost, they say, of about seven cents per pound. As of last week, they also offer testing for radiation on request.

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Diners can find a list of restaurants using Safe Harbor seafood testing at
safeharborfoods.com

Overkill? Just a few weeks ago, 300 pounds of mahi mahi tested positive for histamines. Last week, they found salmonella in a batch of Manila clams. And swordfish barely ever passes their standards for mercury.

While Wittenberg agrees that the risk of radiation poisoning from fish is pretty remote, fish have already been found off Japan showing elevated levels of radiation.

“The American public associates sushi with Japan,” Cardenas says, but sourcing is worldwide today. “Our seafood comes from the waters off Alaska, Hawaii, the Northeast Atlantic and the Mediterranean,” Wynn Resorts told the Weekly. MGM’s Jones listed fish from New Zealand, Canada, Ecuador and Thailand. “If there’s an ocean there, we get it.”

And even for those still getting fish from Japan, Cardenas points out that Tsukiji is a hub—fish moving through it could be from Korea, China or other parts of the Pacific Rim. And there’s another major fish market on the southern Japanese island of Kyushu. “Now, everything is being directed through Kyushu. The fish from the Northern part that’s been affected, Miyagi oysters, mackerels, those just aren’t available. There’s not even boats to go out to sea there.”

As the situation evolves, there are likely to be a couple of silver linings to this radioactive moment. The first is the opportunity for restaurants to advertise sourcing of fish in the same vein as Niman Ranch beef or Smithfield ham. Already, Wynn requires “point of origin” certification for all fish, and much of Safe Harbor’s inspected product not only includes the regional source, but even the boat captain’s name.

The second benefit is perhaps more important for the ecology of the seas around Japan: a valuable chance to replenish the fish population. “Yellowtail is getting a giant break right now,” Tila says. “A lot of seafood is getting a huge break.”

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