Photo/IllutrationChefs learn how to remove toxic parts of puffer fish at a workshop in Tokyo's Tsukiji market in July. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

  • Photo/Illustraion

Given the poisonous reputation of “fugu” puffer fish, the government is moving to introduce uniform criteria for licensing chefs to ensure the delicacy is always safe to eat.

A total of 295 people became ill after eating the fish on 204 occasions over 10 years through last year, and three of them died, according to the health ministry. Nearly 80 percent of the poisoning outbreaks occurred in households.

The ministry in April set up a committee to develop a nationally standardized certification system, as each prefecture has its own rules on the way chefs are licensed to prepare the fish, which is often eaten raw as sashimi.

The committee will discuss qualifications for taking exams and attending training programs, such as whether applicants have worked at fugu restaurants and if they already have a cooking license.

As early as June, the government plans to have a proposal in place that will eliminate differences among fugu chefs in different prefectures over their ability to identify types of fish and remove their poisonous parts.

Another objective of developing uniform standards is to bolster exports of the fish by ensuring safety in the global market. Overseas, puffer fish are generally regarded as toxic and inedible.

Different kinds of fugu have poison in different parts of their bodies.

The muscles, skin and testis of the tiger puffer are safe to eat, but the entire body of the species known as Lagocephalus lunaris is poisonous.

In 1975, Kabuki actor Bando Mitsugoro VIII, a living national treasure, died after eating fugu liver, one of the most poisonous yet tastiest parts of the fish.

The ministry has determined which types of fugu can be consumed after toxic parts are eliminated so only safe, edible parts can be sold.

Consumption of fugu differs greatly depending on regions, so standards to enable chefs to handle the exotic dish vary considerably.

In 21 prefectures, including Yamaguchi and Tokyo, aspiring fugu chefs must take an exam to become licensed, but qualifications for applicants as well as the required levels of knowledge and skills are different.

For that reason, a chef licensed to prepare fugu in Osaka Prefecture cannot work in Tokyo, for example.

The national fugu association, which comprises puffer fish cooks, has long called for a standardized certification system.

“Uniform criteria are essential for chefs to acquire accurate knowledge,” said Akiko Ota, representative director of the association.

The fish were traditionally popular in the Chugoku and Kyushu regions, but harvests in those western regions have fallen and catches in eastern Japan have picked up the slack.

Fisheries ministry statistics show that the largest haul in 2017 was in Ishikawa Prefecture with 656 tons, followed by Hokkaido, where the catch came to 478 tons, up 14 times from 2003.

Ishikawa Prefecture in 2006 started technical and written tests to evaluate applicants’ skills in the art of serving fugu.

Previously, applicants were only required to participate in a training program.

“We decided stricter standards were needed to ensure safety,” said a prefectural government official.

in Hokkaido, applicants who have attended a training program that includes technical lessons are allowed to serve fugu.

Even those who have never worked at fugu restaurants can participate in the training program.

“We believe the training program is sufficient to ensure safety,” said a Hokkaido prefectural government official. “We have no intention to revise the certification system.”