It's more complicated than you'd expect.
Most of us would never think to eat raw fish—unless it’s sushi grade. Whether it’s sushi, sashimi, crudo, or ceviche, sushi grade is the golden standard for any seafood dish that involves raw or lightly-cooked fish.
The common belief is that sushi grade fish—whether it’s a seared rare tuna steak or salmon maki roll—is among the freshest, highest quality seafood that you can buy. However, this term doesn’t quite mean what we think it does. The good news: Yes, you can feel safe about eating sushi grade fish raw. The bad news: This term isn’t as regulated as you might expect, so it’s important to find a fishmonger you trust. Let’s take a closer look at what sushi grade fish really means—and where you might expect to buy it.
What is Sushi Grade Fish?
You’ve likely seen sushi grade fish in seafood markets, grocery stores, and seafood or sushi restaurants. Tuna and salmon are the most common types of sushi grade fish we eat, but at sushi restaurants you've probably seen yellowtail (also called hamachi), squid, scallops, sea urchin, and more labeled as sushi grade. Also called “sashimi grade,” sushi grade fish tends to be more expensive at seafood markets—but it should also be among the highest-quality selections you can find.
As a consumer, you should feel that sushi grade fish is safe to eat raw, but that's about it. The truth is, sushi grade as a label isn't actually regulated by the FDA. In fact, there is no official definition for what makes a fish "sushi grade." In many cases, sushi grade is simply used as a marketing term to make certain fish more attractive to consumers.
Before you panic, remember that it's in the best interest of any seafood market, grocery store, or restaurant to keep their customers safe. Furthermore, the FDA publishes seafood handling guidelines that include best practices for raw fish. But while the FDA’s guidelines recommend freezing fish at very low temperatures to effectively kill parasites, actual enforcement is left up to local health officials. However, some cities, such as the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, have implemented laws that require restaurants to freeze raw seafood before serving it to customers as sushi or ceviche.
Where Can You Buy Sushi Grade Fish?
When seeking out sushi grade fish, finding a fishmonger you trust—and also knowing how to spot signs of spoilage—are the best steps you can take to stay safe. Seek out a local fish market that regularly receives shipments of fresh seafood, and find out where the best chefs in your town shop. If you’re making homemade sushi, don’t hesitate to ask your fishmonger to recommend the best—and freshest—type of fish to use. And if you don’t find anything you feel comfortable eating raw, don’t fret. You’ll find plenty of delicious sushi riffs using cooked seafood (such as this Avocado-Shrimp Sushi recipe) that you can make at home.
Also, the FDA offers tips on safely selecting and storing fresh seafood to help you spot (or smell) spoiled fish. When transporting fish from the store, ask your fishmonger to pack your seafood on ice to keep it cool on the way home. Refrigerate seafood as soon as you can, and do your best to consume it within a day if you intend to eat it raw. If you don’t think you’ll eat the fish within two days, then you’ll want to go ahead and freeze it. Always thaw your fish in the refrigerator, and never at room temperature.