No, I’m not talking about presidential politics. I’m talking, literally, about fish.
First, we learn that a man is suing a Chicago restaurant after, he says, an undercooked salmon salad left him violently ill for days. The man later passed a 9-foot-long tapeworm.
According to court papers, a pathologist determined that the giant tapeworm has only one source: “undercooked fish, such as salmon.”
If that isn’t enough to make you go vegetarian, I don’t know what is.
Next we learn that a Chicago-area man has been indicted on charges of procuring pufferfish poison for use as a weapon. Federal prosecutors allege that the man posed as a researcher to obtain tetrodotoxin, a lethal substance found in pufferfish that has no known antidote. He was arrested after federal agents stormed his northwest suburban home and found more than 40 vials containing the deadly neurotoxin.
Now, it seems unlikely that many—or any—others are plotting to poison people with pufferfish (although a handful of people do die every year in Japan after eating pufferfish, or fugu, sashimi).
But if I were a fish-eater, I’d be worried about the tapeworm story. With the growing popularity of raw fish dishes like salmon tartare and marinated and cured salmon, I suspect we’ll be hearing of more bad bugs taking up residence in diners’ digestive tracts.
Many people who acquire a tapeworm—from eating fish infected with larvae—go for years without even suspecting that they have one. They discover their uninvited guest after passing a segment in their stool or developing diarrhea, abdominal cramps, nausea or other symptoms.
According to Tammy Burton, a fish pathologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, tapeworm larvae are “fairly common” in Alaska salmon. Farmed salmon can also acquire the larvae if they spend time in fresh water. Cod, flounder and herring are often infected with roundworms—which can also be passed on to people who eat raw or undercooked fish.
While tapeworms are gross—who wants a 9-foot-long worm living in his or her belly?—they won’t kill you. But some of the other substances in fish might. Fish is frequently contaminated with mercury—a documented poison that can cause brain damage, memory loss, tremors and joint pain—as well as dioxin, PCBs and other cancer-causing toxins. And unlike with worm larvae, you can’t get rid of the mercury or dioxin in fish just by freezing or cooking it.
If I weren’t already vegetarian, I think this story would be enough to make me consider it. But I stopped eating fish—and other animals—many years ago. I’m a swimmer, and when I lived in San Francisco, I spent so much time swimming in the bay that eating fish started to feel like eating my “friends.”
Very little bothered me when I swam in the bay—not the currents, the cold or even the boat traffic. But swimming under and next to the piers, with tangles of fishing line descending into the water, scared the heck out of me, and it still does. I’m very afraid of getting hooked. It doesn’t take a giant leap to realize that in all likelihood, fish aren’t crazy about that prospect either.
Now I know that fish, like other animals, are smart, can feel pain and even have their own distinct personalities, and I wouldn’t dream of eating one. But for those who do, don’t be surprised if waiters start asking, “Would you like tartar sauce with your tapeworm?”
If that doesn’t sound very appetizing to you, perhaps it’s time to leave fish and other animals off your plate.