Deadly Form of Puffer Fish Being Sold By Street Vendors, CDC Warns

Federal health officials are warning consumers that a breed of puffer fish is being sold by some street vendors, which cannot be made safe and whose poison could be lethal. 

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a warning in its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report on January 2, detailing the case of two people in Minnesota who fell ill from tetrodotoxin poisoning. Based off interviews with the two victims, the CDC fears a potential outbreak among people eating puffer fish bought from street vendors.

The two patients, a 30-year-old male and a 33-year old female, siblings, were admitted to Hennepin County Medical Center’s emergency department in Minneapolis this summer. They experienced mouth and tongue numbness, weakness in their limbs, extreme fatigue, and dyspnea.

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They reported that two other friends had also fallen ill, but had not gone to the hospital because their symptoms were less severe.

What has the CDC concerned is that they report having bought dried fish called globefish from a street vendor in New York City and brought in several samples. Genetic analysis revealed that it is actually a form of puffer fish known as Lagocephalus lunaris, or the Green Rough-Backed Puffer Fish. It is also known as the Moontail Blaasop, the Headrabbit Puffer, and the Lunartail Puffer.

Puffer fish is a delicacy served because, in part, the fish’s bodies contain a powerful poison. A well-trained chef, familiar with the creatures, can remove the poison glands and organs and prepare the fish safely, leaving a slight tingling sensation that connoisseurs enjoy. They often enjoy the risk involved as well, because failure to make the fish properly could result in severe injury or even death.

The problem with the Green Rough-Backed Puffer is that it cannot ever be prepared safely. The poison courses throughout its body, unlike the types of puffer fish that can be made safe.

“Lagocephalus lunaris is an Indo-Pacific species of puffer fish and is one of the only species known to contain high concentrations of tetrodotoxin naturally in the meat, making safe preparation of this product impossible,” the CDC warns. “In its native region, it has been confused with similar looking, nontoxic species, resulting in numerous illnesses. This is the same species that was illegally imported and responsible for illnesses in California, Illinois, and New Jersey in 2007.”

The term Globefish, the name the fish was sold under by the street vendor, is a catchall for puffer fish, sunfish and similar species, and does not tell the buyer what they need to know about the fish they are buying. Additionally, drying the fish out before selling it does not remove the poison from the meat.

The two patients left the hospital before the hospital felt it was safe to release them and neither the CDC nor Minnesota health officials have successfully found them. They have warned New York City health officials that a vendor may be selling a potentially deadly form of puffer fish on the streets, but they say they have too little information to successfully track down the vendor at this time.

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