Ehime breeder raises poison-free fugu

by Ryota Tajiri

Kyodo News

MATSUYAMA, Ehime Pref. — Thrill-seeking gourmets have long lusted after the poisonous “torafugu” blowfish, a winter delicacy in Japan that can be lethal unless prepared by a highly skilled chef.

But a fish breeding company in the town of Ainan, Ehime Prefecture, has found a way for anyone to try fugu, as it is commonly known, without the risk of paralysis and death.

Optima Foods Corp. has succeeded in breeding 50,000 of the nonpoisonous “takifugu rubripes” species and is now selling them online.

About three years ago, the company attracted attention for its fish farm located deep in the mountains, but business had stagnated because of the difficulties in raising takifugu. But the company has improved its methods of late and successfully cut costs.

Because the fish farm is inland, no seawater is used. Instead, salt and minerals are added to spring water and mixed in tanks.

According to the Fisheries Agency, Optima Foods’ operations are unusual in Japan because of the high level of technology required to maintain water quality and circulation.

“Water is what we have the most trouble with,” said Toshiyasu Yoshimura, who took over as president of the firm last year. Artificial saltwater is superior to seawater from a hygiene standpoint, but making the 1,100 tons needed for takifugu breeding requires a huge capital outlay.

To raise cash, Yoshimura cut his entire ¥5 million-a-year advertising budget and came up with a method of feeding that helps maintain water quality.

“We reduced (use of) mixed feed and increased (their) living prey, sand eels. Their droppings became solid, allowing easy recovery, and the maintenance of water quality has become easy,” he said. Tweaking the diet of the fish has cut costs by two-thirds.

By carefully monitoring the health of the takifugu and moving fish that are in poor health to other tanks, Optima Foods’ fish stocks have risen to about 10,000 this year, a fivefold increase since the new feeding method was introduced. And the farmed fish are larger than their wild cousins, weighing more than 1 kg each.

Takifugu raised in the town are sold in Matsuyama as well as in Tokyo and Kochi.

Shichiraku, a restaurant in Matsuyama, began using takifugu from Optima Foods this year. Master Chef Yoshiyuki Matsuda is impressed with what he has seen. “Normally, black blood streaks remain on the body of farm-raised fish, but there is no such streak on the body of fish raised on land. The body is a clear, light brown, and the texture is firm. I would never have thought it’s been cultured.”

The company’s online sales, which began in October, have also been strong, and retail customers have started purchasing the puffer. In the future, Optima Foods plans to move into food processing to expand regional employment.

But success hasn’t come easily. The price of takifugu raised on land is about 10 percent higher than wild fish and twice as expensive as imported ones, meaning takifugu farmed inland cannot compete on price.