Ontario scraps sushi crackdown

John Allemang
Thursday, December 2, 2004 - Page A1

TORONTO -- The Ontario government has learned a painful lesson: You can't push sushi lovers around.

The government plans to back down on a legal amendment to force sushi chefs and anyone else selling raw-fish specialties to use only frozen seafood.

The rules, which came into effect on Sept. 1, caused a storm when it became apparent that officials who drafted them relied on limited scientific research while failing to consult restaurateurs who make their livelihood from raw-fish delicacies.

"If we had the information we needed at the start," Ontario's Chief Medical Officer, Sheela Basrur, said, "we would have done things differently. But better late than never."

The province never enforced the regulation, an amendment to the Health Protection and Promotion Act, due to the initial protests. While the amendment is still technically on the books, Liberal MPP Peter Fonseca, parliamentary assistant to Health Minister George Smitherman, said the government intends to deal with safety concerns through "voluntary compliance" rather than the existing ban. Certification of sushi chefs and others who deal with raw fish could be a part of such a shift.

Ontario is the only province to decree that sushi must be made from frozen fish. Although the government's belated turnaround delighted Toronto sushi master HiroYoshida, the chef couldn't help but wonder why it had even contemplated forcing him to abandon his traditions and serve frozen fish.

"I feel very good now, but at the time I felt so disappointed because there was just no reason for it," he said.

Preventing food-borne diseases is an essential part of the Health Ministry's work, but in light of the government's climbdown, the ban on fresh-fish sushi (which also extended to ceviche, fish tartare and even cold-smoked salmon) now begins to looks like risk-assessment overkill.

"It was done with the right reason in mind," Mr. Fonseca said. "But I don't know if we had a good enough understanding of what other jurisdictions were doing and what the risks really were. . . . Fish is such a healthy food, and when we have such a big problem with obesity, we don't want to stop people eating fish, we want to encourage them."

When the amendment was first implemented, public-health officials pointed to the dangers posed by parasitic roundworms in fresh ocean fish. Prolonged freezing can kill the parasites, even if the process produced mushy fish from cell-wall breakdown when it is thawed.

But now Dr. Basrur acknowledges that anisakiasis, the disease most often mentioned in connection with sushi eating, is extremely rare in the province. By her reckoning, only three cases have surfaced in Ontario in the past decade.

Health advisers, on the lookout post-SARS for any offshore illness that might ravage Ontario, noted Japan's 2,000 annual cases of anisakiasis.

But, said Patrick McMurray, owner of Toronto's Starfish oyster bar and a leader of the fight against the fresh-fish ban, "that number is not significant in a country where so many people eat raw fish, and even in Japan, the illnesses aren't coming out of restaurants and the people who get sick aren't eating fish prepared by trained sushi chefs."

How Ontario ended up with a regulation it wants to disown is something of a mystery.

In 2003, the officials undertook an extensive review of the Health Protection and Promotion Act's Regulation 562 dealing with food premises, which governs a range of issues from the minimum internal temperature of barbecued chicken to the height of the legs on vending machines. The consultations that ensued included interest groups from the restaurant trade, fast-food industry, grocery chains and commodity suppliers. But when the discussions came down to raw fish, the omissions were significant.

Terry Mundell, president of the Ontario Restaurant, Hotel and Motel Association, said the concern about serving raw fresh fish was never raised with his group. Even now, he can't see why the government forced through the amendment.

"Surely they've got bigger fish to fry," he said.

Dr. Basrur maintains that all major industry associations were consulted but, she said, "the message did not necessarily percolate down to the Japanese restaurants."

So key players were missed, partly because, as independent operators with sometimes a limited grasp of English -- and little time to spend lobbying -- they did not make a government consultation list. But it wasn't just the Japanese chefs who were left out. Barry Chaim, who owns the Edo group of restaurants in Toronto, didn't hear about the regulation until after it came into effect in September when a city public-health official told him he would have to switch from fresh to frozen.

Many of the large players in Canada's fish business who have a more direct line to government policy-makers work with frozen fish because it can be cheaper, more reliable, easier to transport and even healthier compared with low-grade fresh fish, which is more susceptible to contamination. And with many untrained cooks entering the sushi business, it was not surprising that health officials started calculating risks.

"Some of their health concerns are legitimate," Mr. Chaim said. "But there are better ways to educate food handlers and benefit the public than through a blanket freezing of fish."