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'Is sushi safe?' In wake of Japan crisis, L.A. area restaurants field diners' questions

April 7, 2011 | 11:40 am

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L.A. restaurateurs say diners have been asking about the safety of fish from Japan -- especially since officials this week detected increased levels of radioactive iodine in fish caught 50 miles south of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant and Tokyo Electric Power Co. announced plans to dump low-level radioactive water into the ocean. (And now that chefs such as Eric Ripert at Le Bernardin in New York are wielding radiation detectors.)

But local restaurateurs are reassuring customers that the fish they're serving is safe and a majority of it is coming from other parts of the world. Fishing has been banned near the nuclear plant, and, anyway, much of the fishing industry in the region has been decimated by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. (Meanwhile, the Japanese government on Tuesday imposed a standard health limit of 2,000 becquerels of radioactive iodine per kilogram of fish.) Since late March, food imported from four prefectures in Japan -- Fukushima, Ibaraki, Tochigi and Gunma -- has had to be tested and cleared by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Seafood from other areas of Japan also is being screened. 

"About 90% of the fish we're serving is from Europe or the East Coast," says Michael Cimarusti, chef-owner of seafood-focused Providence restaurant in Hollywood. Cimarusti, who serves Japanese kanpachi and scallops, says he isn't worried about radioactive iodine in Japanese fish because his seafood purveyor has conducted independent radiation tests.  

Los Angeles-based International Marine Products has been testing fish at Radiation Safety Engineering in Arizona. IMP says tests have not shown any iodine-131 (or radioiodine) in fish. 

Lee Maen, a partner in Innovative Dining Group (which operates five Sushi Roku restaurants and is one of Southern California's largest buyers of sashimi-grade fish), also says more than 90% of their seafood comes from outside Japan: tuna from Spain, Croatia, India and the North Atlantic; halibut from Korea; king crab from Alaska; and sea urchin and sweet shrimp from Santa Barbara. Most of what does come from Japan comes from the southern island of Kyushu, he says. "We were just surprised that so many customers were asking about it," Maen says, "people who would know better that a restaurant isn't going to serve fish with radiation."  

Some seafood purveyors say demand has slowed in the past few weeks. "It's important for consumers to understand that a sense of panic is unwarranted," says a representative of New Jersey-based True World Foods. "There’s nothing coming from that area, boats have been destroyed, fishermen are missing, the infrastructure of docks and waterfronts is gone, processing plants have been ruined. It's all gone. Nothing is coming from that area. And the FDA is testing every shipment we get from Japan. It has gone over and above what science would seem to indicate is warranted."

What about you? Do you have any concerns about eating fish?  

-- Betty Hallock

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Photo: Fish at the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo. Credit: EPA/Stephen Morrison.

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