Reporting Pam Zekman
CHICAGO (CBS) — How safe is the sushi you eat? The most recent available statistics from the Centers for Disease Control say about 14 percent of the food-borne illnesses outbreaks reported in 2008 were caused by seafood, affecting 6.7 million people.
Because it’s raw, sushi can be one of the riskiest fish dishes to eat. But the CBS 2 Investigators found many sushi restaurants fail to follow the most basic requirement to keep sushi safe.
For Stacey Vest, a night out for sushi in 2008 almost turned into her last meal.
“I was determined not to die,” she said in describing what happened after she ate a raw tuna roll at Rokbonki in Arlington Heights.
Within hours, she says, Vest began suffering frightening symptoms, including slurred speech and double vision. It escalated to facial paralysis and breathing troubles. She lost most of her muscle coordination.
Vest tested positive for a rare form of botulism that has been associated with seafood.
Now she is suing Rokbonki for negligence. Among other things, the lawsuit charges the restaurant “failed to properly store, handle and package food in a safe manner” and that it “failed to keep food at a safe temperature” to prevent the growth of a botulism toxin.
Instructions on the packaging of the frozen chunk tuna the restaurant uses for its tuna roll says it should be refrigerated “below 38 degrees during and after thawing.” Handlers are told to “remove product from package when thawing,” a hazard warning required by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
An FDA spokesperson explained that while vacuum packaging extends product shelf-life by inhibiting spoilage organisms, “some strains of C. botulinum associated with seafood products can grow at temperatures as low as 38 degrees, and the lack of oxygen in a vacuum package provides an optimum atmosphere for growth.”
“And we know from what the restaurant told us that they were thawing the tuna at a higher temperature,” Vest’s attorney, James Crawley, says.
“You can always cook out salmonella or botulism,” says Emily Carroll, of Food and Water Watch, a not-for-profit consumer-rights organization. “But with raw fish, you really can’t cook out the disease. You don’t have that option.”
City health inspectors check sushi restaurants to make sure the fish is kept at 40 degrees or less.
The 2 Investigators checked 2010 and 2011 inspection records of 110 sushi restaurants in Chicago and found 47 failed at least one health inspection in the last two years. Of those, 16 had critical temperature violations and eight of those involved raw fish.
After a Tank Sushi customer complained of food poisoning, inspectors found raw fish stored at 45 degrees. The restaurant owner blamed the temperature violation on the timing of the lunch hour inspection in November 2010.
“We’re crazy with business,” he said, adding that the refrigerator was being opened and closed constantly. He voluntarily discarded the food and paid a fine, saying, “It’s just the city’s way to make money.”
As for the food-poisoning complaint, he said generally restaurants get them all the time from people who claim they got sick the night of their meal and “it’s impossible.”
In September 2010 inspectors found sushi kept at temperatures ranging from 45 to 56 degrees at Ringo.
And in November 2010 inspectors found seafood stored at temperatures as high as 62 degrees at Oysy. A total of 102 pounds of food valued at $500 was disposed of.
Owners or managers of Ringo and Oysy did not return phone calls from CBS 2.
So what should you look for before eating sushi?
“The fish should not smell fishy,” said Vincent Tan, the owner of Simply Thalia. “If they smell bad, obviously you have a bad fish.”
Tan also said the color of the fish should be even without any dark spots and it should not be too dry but “soft and tender like a nice piece of meat.”
As for Stacey Vest, she has come a long way in her recovery. But her mother Sally Vest warns: “Beware. Absolutely beware. I myself would never eat sushi.”
The Rokbonki owners have denied all the charges. They referred CBS 2 to their attorney for any comment. He declined because of the pending litigation.
The tuna packages taken from the restaurant by inspectors did not test positive for botulism, but they were taken four days after Vest got sick.
“It wasn’t even from the same lot of tuna that Stacey ate that night,” Crawley said.
Rokbonki has a history of temperature violations. It was cited by Arlington Heights health inspectors for not having an operating thermometer in its sushi refrigerator before and after Vest ate there. But it has not had critical violations in its three most recent inspections