October 17, 2007; Updated January 17, 2014*
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is warning restaurants and fish markets that serve or sell puffer fish (also known as puffer, fugu, bok, blowfish, globefish, swellfish, balloonfish, or sea squab) not to buy or sell this product unless it is obtained from a known safe source.
- Puffer fish may contain the potent and deadly toxins tetrodotoxin and/or saxitoxin which can cause severe illness and death. These are central nervous system toxins and are more deadly than cyanide. Symptoms start within 20 minutes to 2 hours after eating the toxic fish. Initial symptoms include tingling of the lips and mouth, followed by dizziness, tingling in the extremities, problems with speaking, balance, muscle weakness and paralysis, vomiting, and diarrhea. In severe intoxications, death can result from respiratory paralysis. For more information on tetrodotoxin, refer to the Bad Bug Book available on-line.
- Recent illnesses have been reported from consumption of imported puffer fish and domestic puffer fish from Florida, from both commercially harvested and recreationally caught fish.
- The liver, gonads (ovaries and testes), intestines and skin of puffer fish typically contain the toxin. Unless puffer fish is cleaned and prepared in a special manner to carefully remove the organs containing toxin, the flesh of the fish will become contaminated with the toxin.
- The toxin cannot be destroyed by cooking or freezing. In fact, freezing and thawing of the product prior to removal of the toxic organs may result in the migration of toxin into the flesh of the fish.
- Due to the potential health hazard, commercial importation of puffer fish into the United States is heavily restricted. Personal importation is prohibited.
- Currently, the only acceptable source of imported puffer fish is from a New York importer, Wako International. This company imports the product from processing facilities licensed by the Japanese government to prepare this product using specially trained fish cutters. It is only imported into the United States on a limited basis under an agreement between FDA and the Japanese government. There is no similar training and certification process for American chefs. Therefore there is an increased risk that puffer fish prepared in the United States and elsewhere will be improperly prepared.
- The State of Florida currently has a ban on both commercial and recreational harvesting of puffer fish from the waters of Volusia, Brevard, Indian River, St. Lucie, and Martin counties on the east coast of Florida due to persistent toxicity. Puffer fish harvested from these Florida counties have been found to contain significant amounts of toxin in the flesh regardless of the preparation technique. The Northern Puffer fish from the mid-Atlantic coastal waters of the United States, typically between Virginia and New York, has not been found to contain toxin, but without routine toxin screening there still is a potential risk.
- For restaurants and fish markets that wish to continue serving or selling puffer fish, in addition to following applicable state and local regulations, FDA recommends that you:
- Do not serve or sell imported puffer fish unless it has been sourced as described above;
- Do not serve or sell domestic puffer fish unless it has been harvested in the mid-Atlantic.
The FDA Regulatory Fish Encyclopedia has descriptions and photos of puffer fish and is available on-line.
For more information on puffer fish hazards, contact Karen Swajian at 240-402-1614
For assistance on the identification of puffer fish, contact Jonathan Deeds at 240-402-1474.
For information on rules for retail food stores, markets, and restaurants, contact Kevin Smith at 240-402-2149.
To report illness from the consumption of puffer fish please contact the FDA Emergency Hotline number at 1-866-300-4374 or 301-796-8240 or your state or local health department.
*The contact information and the description of the deadliness of the toxins were amended on January 17, 2014.
Press Release: FDA Provides Advice on Safe Sources of Puffer Fish October 17, 2007
Consumer Advisory: Only Eat Puffer Fish from Known Safe Sources October 17, 2007, Updated January 17, 2014.