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Puffer Fish Sushi: How Fugu Kills You

This author enjoys researching different foods, trying out new recipes, and sharing her discoveries with her readers.

Death by Blow Fish

When I think of blow fish or puffer fish—also known as fugu (meaning river pig) in Japan—beautiful revenge comes to mind. When prepared improperly, eating blow fish sushi can (and does) kill humans. This little creature is possibly the one food that kills humans only after humans have already killed it.

What Is Tetrodotoxin?

Tetrodotoxin (TTX), is one of the most powerful neurotoxins found anywhere in the world. When put to use by the pufferfish, the substance is employed to keep predators away while it is alive, and apparently to exact revenge upon humans who dine at the fugu sushi table following its demise. In its fugu sushi state, the blow fish can have enough of the neurotoxin left in its little (improperly) filleted body to kill more than 30 full-sized people, including you.

The Fugu Puffer Fish

Blow Fish Isn't Really Full of Hot Air

The blow fish is known for its striking ability to poof-up like a big spiky hot-air balloon during a crisis. But, it isn't filling itself up with hot air at all! What causes that lean little fish to become its bulbous alter ego? Tetrodotoxin, that's what.

It's a Japanese Delicacy

Safe Fugu Is All About the Chef

When in Japan, be prepared to hear about the wonderful attributes of the pufferfish. To some Japanese people, when—theoretically—prepared properly, no other food item is held in such high esteem as is fugu sushi. People will pay a ton of cash to get a tiny nibble of the stuff, and only because it is said to be the most delicious of any fish. However, before you decide to partake in this amazing sushi, you might want to ask for an introduction to the chef who will be preparing it.

Why You Want to Meet the Fugu Sushi Chef

You see, chefs who prepare and serve fugu sushi must be licensed and specially trained in the ways of the puffer fish's particular preparation techniques. These elite few chefs, undergo a rigid learning program to fully understand how to remove the parts of the puffer fish's body—most importantly the liver and ovaries—that house the tetrodotoxin. Before serving you the dish, the chef is required to taste the sushi to make certain it is safe for you to consume. you may run across a chef who does not have the qualifications for such precision work, but prepares it anyway. So, knowing your chef isn't having a bad day or that he has the right credentials can, in this case, literally be a matter of life and a horrible death by poisoning.

Pufferfish Is a Dangerous Delicacy (FUGU)

When a Sushi Chef Has a Bad Day

Your Sushi Chef Holds Your Life in His Hands

Let's just say that the sushi chef who will be filleting and serving your fugu tonight has had a very bad day, or is a newly trained chef, and he neglects to remove every bit of the toxic rich organs. Next, he serves this sushi to you on a beautifully arranged platter. Then, you gracefully grip the fugu with the tips of your chop sticks, carefully dipping it into the lovely soy sauce and wasabi so not to drop even a flake. Now, you pop the fish into your mouth and swallow it down, happily discovering for yourself that everything wonderful said about puffer fish sushi is true! However, what you will also discover is that the neurotoxin has already begun its deadly process.

What You Think Really Does Matter!

A Frightening Fact About Pufferfish Poisoning

The tetrodotoxin (poison) found in pufferfish is measured at being 1,200 times more deadly than cyanide. Making an exposure equal to the size of a pinhead enough to kill you.

Fugu Sushi Poisoning

What Happens Once Fugu Tetrodotoxin Gets Consumed

The very moment you consume tainted puffer fish, the tetrodotoxin poison goes to work at flipping "off" the switch that is your life. It immediately attacks the nervous system in your body, which prevents your neurons from communicating with each other and more importantly with your brain. The most horrifying and deadly component to the neurotoxin is that it impedes the body's muscle function; putting an emphatic halt to your muscles' ability to work.

Fugu Sushi Tray

Fugu Sushi Tray

What Are the Stages of Blow Fish Poisoning?

  • That tingling sensation felt on the tongue and in the mouth is due to the poison killing-off your neurotransmitters ability to function correctly.
  • The dizziness, nausea, headache and vomiting are telling you that your body is in big trouble here, and the next hour(s) is going to be the worst of your existence.
  • Your difficulty with breathing is just a part of the total loss of all motor functions along with autonomic functions—like heart rate, digestion, and other involuntary functions—that you will endure over the next few hours.
  • Your body becomes totally paralyzed. Unbearable as the paralysis may seem, knowing you will be fully conscience for this part of the battle adds a Nightmare On Elm Street quality to the situation. Retaining complete awareness that you are dying makes for one unmeasurable horror factor in my book.
  • Because you can no longer breath for yourself, having immediate access to a respirator is your only hope, and a thinly veiled one at that.
  • You are bound to die, as the tetrodotoxin your sushi chef left behind in that delicately prepared fugu has no known antidote.

5 Scientific Facts About Puffer Fish

Tiger Puffer (Takifugu rubripes)

This little fish is considered to be the most toxic of the twenty-five species of fugu. The toxin it harbors tetrodotoxin (or tetrodoxin) is named for Tetraodontiformes, the order of fish that includes fugu.

1. Who Is at the Most Risk of Dying From Puffer Fish Poisoning?

People who think the thrill of eating sushi should equal the rush found in engaging in unarmed hand-to-hand combat with a pride of African lions. Oh, and the sushi chefs who are mandated to taste it before serving it.

2. Medical Cause of Death From Puffer Fish Poisoning

Respiratory paralysis, asphyxiation.

3. How Lethal Is the Poison in Fugu?

Very high! More than 60% of all fugu poisonings will end in death. After the toxin has been consumed, you have less than sixty minutes to get respiratory treatment which is your only hope in surviving the effects of this powerful poison.

4. How Long Does It Take for Puffer Fish Poison to Kill You?

Anywhere from 20 minutes to 24 hours.

5. How Many People Die From Puffer Fish Sushi Yearly?

More than 100 people die annually from puffer fish poisoning. Almost all resulting from consuming the world's most deadly delicacy. Throughout history, thousands have met their demise from fugu poisoning, primarily in Japan and China where it is more readily found in sushi restaurants.

Comments for "Why Japanese Fugu Sushi Kills You"

Yourgotoguy on June 11, 2015:

so what happens to the chefs, do they go to jail for killing someone for not cooking puffer properly or do the consumers have to sign a waiver???

India Arnold (author) from Northern, California on July 31, 2012:

@Robin, I agree! I can't imagine any food (that does not have chocolate in the recipe) worth dying for! ;)

I love sushi, too. But I am certain fugu is one menu item I will continue to avoid! I appreciate that you made it by today, it makes my day!


Robin Edmondson from San Francisco on July 31, 2012:

I think I'm out on this one. I love sushi, but I have a feeling the hype is more than the actual taste and the risk! I never knew what was the real cause, thanks for the lesson!

India Arnold (author) from Northern, California on July 20, 2012:

@Global-Chica~ You are such a trail-blazer! I had a feeling this type of gourmet undertaking would be right up your alley! Just make sure the chef takes a bite first! Thanks for stopping by today.


@CClitgirl~ I have to admit, I am with you on this one. Not really my thing to tempt death over a tasty morsel! I can find plenty of less dangerous things on the menu I am sure.

I appreciate that you shared your thoughts here.


@Mary~ Had to laugh when I read your remark! I totally get your point!

hubHugs (and smooch Baby for me!)~

@Jennzie~ Thanks for the comment, I couldn't agree more!


@Sally's Trove~ I am so glad you like the illustration work! I have so much fun creating these little drawings!


@brittanytodd~ I am so jealous! I would love to go fishing these days. I bet these little fish are cute as heck up close and puffy! Thanks for the comments!


@dinkan53~ Thanks for the added perspective on fugu. If I were ever going to try fugu, I would only try it in Japan, where the chefs are most familiar with the filleting technique. I appreciate your remarks.


@Kita13~ I really respect that you have a desire to have a taste of your cultures fugu treasures, but in this case, and if it were me, I would take the advice of your matriarchs, no fugu sushi! Thank you for sharing your story.


Kita13 from Los Angeles, CA on July 19, 2012:

I love sushi. Fugu is the only one that I have not tried. Although it is hazardous, I would like to try it and see what the fuss is about. Unfortunately, both my grandmother and mother, both natives from Japan, constantly inform me how hazardous this kind of fish can be. Yet, they did mention that if I wanted to try it, best go to a place that knows how to serve it. I'm guessing those who do, know how to properly remove the more toxic organs away from the more edible ones. If they didn't, customers would end up very much poisoned and, eventually, dead.

dinkan53 from India on July 19, 2012:

Because of the strict regulations and training programs for the chef, fugu sushi kills is less in Japan. But in other countries it is happening except European Union countries as it is banned there. Not going to try it at any cost.

Brittany Kennedy from Kailua-Kona, Hawaii on July 19, 2012:

I just caught a pufferfish when I went fishing the other day and we were all talking about this, but had no idea what really made the fish so poisonous! Great work here, K9! I enjoyed every minute of it. Thank you so much for answering my questions in such detail; I am posting to FB, Twitter, sharing on HP, and Pinning it! Aloha!

Sherri from Southeastern Pennsylvania on July 19, 2012:

Awesome hub. Love the illustrations. Voted up, awesome, useful, and interesting, and as far as the poll goes, "No way, never!"

Jenn from Pennsylvania on July 19, 2012:

This is very thorough information on how the puffer fish (or blow fish) toxin kills. IMO, there is NO food worth dying for!

Voted up!

Mary Hyatt from Florida on July 19, 2012:

Why is the world would anyone even try this deadly fish?? I've heard of it before, but this article explains what I have just wondered about this fish.

Great info, and I love your illustrations!

I voted this Hub UP and and share for all the fish lovers..

Cynthia Calhoun from Western NC on July 19, 2012:

Wow! I don't know if I would try this stuff since I'm not a big seafood fan. But, even if I did, yeah, I think I WOULD watch the chef try it before serving it to me. LOL. I know lots of people eat this, but for me, I love life too much. Why risk it? Very cool hub, K9. I love your illustrations! Many votes!

Anna from New York, NY on July 19, 2012:

I am dying to try fugu sushi (no pun intended ;-)! I've never come across it though at a restaurant. Great advice about meeting the chef when trying this delicacy - don't wanna be part o the 100 people dying from eating the fish statistic. Very interesting facts too. Thanks for the informative hub and putting fugu on my radar of things to try!

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