Spicy tuna rolls may use low-grade 'scrape'

When ordering a spicy tuna roll, if the

When ordering a spicy tuna roll, if the price is too good to be true that may mean the chef has used low-grade scrape. (April 9, 2012) (Credit: iStock)

In the wake of the recent tuna recall that sickened 12 Long Islanders, is it safe to eat raw tuna?

It's been two weeks since the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced the recall of a tuna product, Nakaochi Scrape, sold by the Moon Marine USA Corp. According to the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control, this frozen, raw yellowfin tuna is the likely source of a nationwide outbreak of Salmonella Bareilly. At least 160 people from 20 states were infected by the salmonella, 30 from New York State, nine from Suffolk and three from Nassau. No deaths have been reported.

According to the FDA, "Many of the people who became ill reported eating raw tuna in sushi as 'spicy tuna.'" Health authorities have not named the establishments where consumers encountered the tainted tuna, but Grace Kelly-McGovern, a spokeswoman for Suffolk County Department of Health Services, said that at least some of the Suffolk cases have been traced to sushi restaurants. "It wasn't just one menu item," she said. "The only consistent thing was that the dishes all contained ground, raw tuna."

Nakaochi Scrape

Nakaochi Scrape is not something consumers have access to. Rather, it is a food-service item consisting of tuna that has been scraped off the bones of a tuna carcass once the rest of the meat has been butchered. The scrapings approximate the texture of ground tuna but cost less.

The recalled Nakaochi Scrape tuna was produced in the Southern Indian state of Kerala by Moon Fishery India Pvt Ltd, a subsidiary of Moon Marine which is based in Cupertino, Calif. Before Moon can resume exporting the product into the U.S., it will have to demonstrate to the FDA that it has determined the exact sources of the contamination and has eradicated them.

FDA spokesman Curtis Allen pointed out that Nakaochi Scrape is not a brand name and that other companies besides Moon produce it. "There may be other tuna scrape products on the market," he said, "but the problem has been traced only to Moon Fishery India."

Jing Chen, whose family owns both a fish wholesaler and the Great Neck Japanese restaurant Miraku, characterized Nakaochi Scrape as "a way to cut corners." Miraku does not use the product, she said, "but a lot of sushi restaurants do." Up until a few months ago, Nakaochi Scrape was selling for around $4 a pound; whereas non-ground (or non-scraped) tuna started at $13 a pound and went up from there. Recently, the price of scraped tuna has risen to about $10 a pound, but it is still cheaper for a restaurant to buy scraped tuna than to grind its own.

Nakaochi Scrape has other distinguishing characteristics besides being scraped off tuna bones. Robert DiGregorio, a veteran fish wholesaler and the author of "Tuna Grading and Evaluation: The Complete Tuna Buyer's Handbook" (Urner Barry, $59), called it "a treated product."

"It's made overseas -- India, Indonesia, the Philippines -- from tuna that's usually not export grade," he said. "In this part of the world, the water is warm and the fishing boats don't necessarily have ice. When the tuna gets to the processing plant, they'll hit it with CO , which brings up the color and keeps it a pinkish-red. The problem with the product is that it stays like that for weeks. You never know if it's old or not."

In the plants, whole loins and steaks are treated with CO, then frozen and packed. Finally, "scrape" is made from the carcasses. "Proponents say that the process stabilizes good tuna," he said. "That's true, but it can also mask not-so-great tuna."

If it's cheap it could be scrape

DiGregorio is most familiar with the Manhattan restaurant market and he estimates that "probably two-thirds of sushi restaurants in the city" use scraped tuna. "When you see a restaurant advertising 'All-you-can-eat sushi' or 'Half-price sushi' -- I mean, come on -- they have to be cutting corners."

Still, he conceded, "I don't like this product, but 99 times out of a 100, it's acceptable, it's edible."

"Edible" seems to be a pretty low bar for human food.

Should you continue to eat raw tuna? The bottom line is that eating raw fish always involves a certain amount of risk. Spicy tuna rolls are particularly risky because the tuna is masked both visually and taste-wise by the presence of spicy mayonnaise and whatever else is involved in the maki roll. It might be worth it to ask at the sushi bar whether the chefs chop up their own raw tuna, then order accordingly.