If you shop for fish, and especially if you shop for fish to be served raw or in ceviche (which is essentially the same thing), you’re bound to come across some fish labeled “sushi-grade" or "sashimi-grade.” What does that mean?
It doesn’t mean that the fish has been tested and found good enough for sushi. There isn’t a grading system for fish like there is for beef. And it doesn’t mean that the fish comes from a different source than any other fish.
So What Does Sushi-Grade Mean?
In fact, there are no regulations governing the use of “sushi-grade.” The term simply means your fishmonger generally considers the fish safe to serve raw. But what exactly that means varies from monger to monger as well as jurisdiction to jurisdiction. According to Davis Herron, the VP and Chief Operating Officer of the Retail & Restaurant Division of Lobster Place, a grand fish market in New York, the phrase is "simply a marketing term that retailers and restaurants use to denote freshness."
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Do Any Regulations Govern the Sale of Fish Intended for Raw Use?
The FDA doesn’t oversee what fish can be sold for eating raw, and neither do the majority of states or cities.
The FDA does have a published recommendation, but it’s only a recommendation. Namely: that all fish intended for raw use should be frozen—before sale—for a minimum of one week at minus 4° Fahrenheit (which is colder than a home freezer) or for 15 hours at minus 31°F (which is much colder than a home freezer). Those temps will kill off most of the parasites that are often found in fresh-caught fish, without damaging the texture of the fish itself. In some states, that FDA recommendation is enforced as a requirement; in most it is not.
Tuna and scallops, since they are not typically infected by the harmful parasites, are generally considered an exception to the need for freezing. (And scallop ceviche is incredible.)
How Can You Best Ensure the Fish You Buy for Eating Raw Is Safe?
It's a good idea to have a conversation with your fishmonger about the fish you buy: If they call it "sushi-grade," what specifically does that mean to them? Has it been cold-treated for safety? How is it different from their fish that is not labeled sushi-grade?
Are There Any Fish That Should Not Be Served Raw?
Salmon and herring, especially wild-caught, are considered particularly high-risk, and freshwater fish should not be eaten raw. And no form of raw seafood should be served to pregnant or immune-compromised people.