Sushi chefs in Europe slam fish-freezing regulation

by William Hollingworth

Kyodo

Japanese chefs in Europe who serve up sushi and sashimi are criticizing a law requiring them to deep-freeze their produce prior to preparation, arguing the quality of the end product is suffering.

They say the regulations, designed to ensure diners are not exposed to poisoning from roundworm larvae and parasites, are ineffectual because the freezing process doesn’t kill off all the potential bugs.

The chefs argue they have been well trained in Japan to prepare the freshest raw food and are able to spot fish that isn’t up to scratch.

They have made their case to Japanese officials stationed in the European Union about the “unreasonable” rules — pointing out that no such legislation exists in Japan or the United States — but Brussels is unlikely to make an exception for sushi chefs.

Since January 2006, it has been obligatory for all restaurants in the European Union to freeze fish that is going to be used for sushi and sashimi for a minimum of 24 hours at a temperature of at least minus 20 degrees.

Food inspectors have visited several Japanese restaurants in London to check if chefs were keeping to the rules. Many were unaware of the regulations but have adhered to the new law once informed and there have been no prosecutions.

The law affects most fish found in Britain, such as cod, sea bream, mackerel and salmon, but does not cover shellfish, much to the dismay of the chefs who see this as a blatant contradiction.

Frederic Serol, operations manager of the Marc restaurant group, which owns the upmarket Umu restaurant, recently told London’s Evening Standard newspaper, “Even if we freeze the fish under the best possible conditions, it will still lose texture and quality,” as defrosting removes water from the fish.

Ichiro Kubota, the Michelin-starred chef who runs Umu, said freezing fish to at least minus 20 does not guarantee all germs and bacteria will die.

“Well-trained, experienced Japanese chefs who have spent more than five years of intensive training in Japanese cuisine know exactly how to serve raw fish,” Kubota said. “A chef without this thorough knowledge and training could serve it incorrectly, and this can be very dangerous.

“There are so many cuisines and cultures that specialize in serving fish and they do so using very high-end techniques and knowledge learned through formal methods.”

One top sushi chef in London, who did not wish to be named, said the regulations should only apply to the cheaper “imitation Japanese” restaurants, which often operate as part of a large chain, because their staff are not as well trained as those at more traditional outlets.

“I don’t think British food officials know proper sushi,” he said. “They must go to Japan and study how sushi chefs are trained and how they secure the quality of raw fish. They should distinguish between the proper and imitation Japanese restaurants. The problem is that there are so many sushi restaurants which are outwardly respectable in this country following the boom in sushi.”

Kubota believes well-trained sushi chefs should be exempt from the deep-freeze regulations and he proposes setting up a licensing system for top chefs.

Nobuyuki Kosaka, an official at the Japan External Trade Organization’s office in London, supports Kubota’s certification plan.

“The Japanese chefs in Europe, particularly in France, think that this regulation is unreasonable,” Kosaka said. “Sushi chefs in Japan have to obtain a certificate before they can practice, which involves a lot of training in health and safety. In Britain, anyone can prepare sushi without qualifications, and untrained chefs handling raw fish could be dangerous.

“I have spoken to the government in Tokyo about these concerns and Japan does have regular meetings with the EU on deregulation. But I think it will be difficult to get the EU to change its position, because it comes under health and safety and science, and is not something like tax.”

A spokeswoman for Britain’s Food Standards Agency said her organization would waive the freezing requirement if it could be shown that the area where the fish was caught is free of parasites.

Evening Standard food writer Charles Campion said the new regulations are yet another example of health-and-safety overkill.