Pufferfish are among some of the most poisonous vertebrae in the world, yet are eaten as a delicacy in many Asian countries, including China. Though the fish do not produce the toxin themselves, they eat something that does, causing a buildup of the toxin in certain organs, with the liver, in particular, being the most poisonous. The origins of the toxin are still debated by scientists. Their gonads, intestines, and skin also contain the neurotoxin tetrodotoxin, which is far more of a potent poison than arsenic or cyanide. There is no known antidote.
Symptoms start within 20 minutes to 2 hours after eating the toxic fish. Initial symptoms include tingling of the lips and mouth, followed by dizziness, tingling in the extremities, problems with speaking, balance, muscle weakness and paralysis, vomiting, and diarrhea. The toxin works by blocking sodium in nerve synapses so that the brain can no longer send signals to the rest of your body. When it kills, it’s because your lungs are no longer able to be told to breathe, so you suffocate.
About 60% of the people who die from poisoning suffer what the U.S. Food and Drug Administration deems a “rapid and violent death.” Many die from eating the liver which aficionados say is “ a great delicacy; once you eat, you can not stop.”
Also known by its Japanese name fugu, the dish is so sought after that many people still take the risk. The Japanese eat over 10,000 tons annually, with heavily policed handling- only licensed chefs can buy and handle the whole pufferfish, which is prohibited to sell to the general public. In the EU, fish of this entire genus are completely prohibited for sale. In the USA, all pufferfish is illegal for consumption or sale, unless it is imported from these licensed and highly trained Japanese chefs. And even so, only 17 restaurants are allowed to put it on a menu, 12 of them being in New York City.