Deadly bacteria in sushi

Reporter: Helen Wellings

Sushi is low in calories and fat, high in vitamins, and potentially crawling with deadly bacteria.Australia has seven million cases of food poisoning each year, costing more than $1 billion in medical bills and lost business revenue from sick days.

The majority of cases are gastroenteritis related, and 18,000 people end up in hospital annually. A further 120 die. Food safety expert Rachelle Williams said the problem is widespread. "(Sushi) is low in calories and fat, very high in vitamins and minerals, but because sushi preparation is hands on and the ingredients - raw fish, vinegar rice and chicken - are notorious for harbouring nasty bacteria, sushi is a potentially dangerous mouthful of bugs," she said.

Rachelle Williams is employed by corporations to conduct health and safety audits on food outlets. Over the last two years, several cases of food poisoning have been linked to a sushi-making and distribution business in Sydney, which was fined 11 times, closed down twice and prosecuted for unclean premises.

Another Sydney company was fined $1500 for transporting thawed sushi in a truck to Canberra. E-coli and the harmful bacteria bacillus cereus, staphylococcus, and listeria monocytogenes have been found in sushi.

Microbiologist Glen Pinna, of research company Biotech Laboratories, tested 60 pieces of sushi from 14 different Sydney suburban and outlets for 'Today Tonight'. Teriyaki chicken, beef, salmon, tuna, eel, tofu, avocado, and other vegetables were on the menu to detect any of the food-poisoning bugs.

Mr Pinna was surprised by the high rate of contamination. "With sushi we are relying on the hygiene of the people who are physically rolling the meals," he said. Five items failed the tests and three were contaminated with the potentially deadly staphylococcus bacteria.

The Food Standards Code specifies over 100 coliforms (a type of bacteria) of staphylococcus is unacceptable, but a tested salmon and avocado roll had 400. One teriyaki chicken sushi roll had 1600 and another had 6600 - 66 times more than the legal limit. "It is going to cause a disease, it is going to cause vomiting and diarrhoea in a large number of people," he said. "It should not be sold."

Another two sushi pieces were contaminated with e-coli, with traces of human or animal waste. The acceptable e-coli level in food is less than three organisms per gram but an eel and avocado roll tested had 39, a salmon roll had 51 - 17 times more than the food standards limit.

"E-coli is known as a faecal indicator. If it is in food, it is an indication that faecal matter is there as well, which means people have not been washing their hands properly after (using) the toilet," Rachelle Williams said. "There is definitely a hygiene problem in those particular businesses," she said.

The results showed that five out of 14 shops sold contaminated sushi. Almost one in 10 sushi pieces tested was contaminated with dangerous bugs. Although councils conduct annual inspections of food outlets, testing of produce is rare, generally only when a problem is detected or after reports of sickness or death from a particular eatery.

"Each state has an act of Parliament, it could be jail, fines, it could be temporary or permanent closure of business," Rachelle said. "The first thing consumers should do (is touch) the glass very lightly to find out whether it is cold. If it is not cold, walk away."Japan, as part of a push to protect the reputation of sushi as a healthy meal, is sending inspectors worldwide from next month to check outlets.

More information about food safety from the Food Safety Information Council is available at http://www.foodsafety.asn.au/