Spicy salmonella rolls raise questions about fishy tuna


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[Update: Total confirmed cases of Salmonella Bareilly infection rose to 160 as of April 21.]

A rare salmonella strain has contaminated raw fish products across 20 states and the District of Columbia, sickening 116 people, as of April 13, and shedding light on the mysterious culprit: Nakaochi Scrape, a part of your spicy tuna roll that sounds less than appetizing.

According to the Food and Drug Administration, Moon Marine USA Corp. (MMI) has recalled 58,828 lbs of its Nakaochi Scrape, a frozen raw yellowfin tuna product the FDA described as “tuna backmeat, which is specifically scraped off from the bones and looks like a ground product.”

MMI’s raw tuna backmeat — which is already being compared with the “pink slime” in beef — has been linked to the widespread outbreak of Salmonella Bareilly, an unusual strain of the bacteria salmonella responsible for 116 recently reported cases of illness but no deaths. Forty-three of 53 (81%) affected people reported eating sushi or other seafood in the week before becoming sick, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; of those 43 people, 36 (84%) reported eating spicy tuna.

If you want to be extra careful — personally, we’d rather be safe than sorry — avoid the following at restaurants and groceries: spicy tuna, other sushi or sashimi, ceviche or similar dishes. The FDA stated that the company name and Nakaochi Scrape AA or AAA were printed on the product boxes when it was sold to distributors. However, these boxes may have been broken up and sold in smaller amounts to retailers, making it difficult to identify the contaminated lots.

Not much seems to be known about Nakaochi Scrape. Michael Doyle, director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia, told NPR that while he’s not familiar with the product, ground-up meat products pose a higher risk of contamination than individual cuts because they use meat from more than one cow, lamb, etc. Thus, if one animal is contaminated, the whole ground product becomes contaminated. It’s especially cause for concern when such a product is consumed raw, since raw food poses a higher risk of contamination.

The last time Salmonella Bareilly hit headlines was in 2010 when it was linked to raw, or undercooked, bean sprouts in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Symptoms usually include diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramps that appear 12 to 72 hours after infection and last about four to seven days. While most people recover without treatment, infants, older adults, pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems are particularly susceptible to severe illness. The FDA advises those who believe they may have fallen ill due to contaminated raw Nakaochi Scrape to consult their healthcare providers.

The exact process behind the production of Nakaochi Scrape is currently shrouded in mystery — although we’re willing to bet it’s going to surface soon from all the media coverage — so we can’t conclusively say much of anything about its general safety. But for now, you might want to turn down the tuna roll.