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The risks of eating raw meatLiver sashimi is not the only thing to watch out for

August 19, 2014  Narumi Sato

 This article first appeared in Japanese on JBpress on August 8. You can read it here.

Japan's passion for raw food encompasses not just its iconic raw fish dishes but also extends to raw chicken, pork and beef. A Western diner may think twice before eating raw pig liver—out of concerns over food safety or simply out of squeamishness—but many Japanese seem undaunted. Science writer Narumi Sato talks about how Japan's raw-food culture and the recent ban on raw pork reflects the low level of safety awareness among today's consumers, and cautions against the consumption of raw meat.

In June 2014, the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare issued an order prohibiting the consumption of raw pork, which is thought to carry a high health risk. The ban on eating raw meat, which was first applied to beef before being extended to pork, sparked anger and dissatisfaction among many people. Yet as a matter of common sense, meat should be cooked before eating. Could this be a reflection of the change in food safety awareness in consumers today?

Eat at your own risk

The Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare banned the consumption of raw pork due to the high risk of exposure to pathogens including the hepatitis E virus, Salmonella and Campylobacter bacteria. Since 2003, a string of food poisoning cases have arisen from eating raw pig liver.

Recent cases of food poisoning due to consumption of raw pork (Table courtesy of the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare presentation materials)

Although the number of cases is relatively low in Japan, infections from parasites such as the pork tapeworm (Taenia solium) found in pigs and wild boars could lead to death in serious situations. As such, raw pork has always been handled with special caution.

Beef or horsemeat, on the other hand, carry relatively little risk of parasitic infections and can be eaten raw. However, the enterohemorrhagic E.coli, a common culprit in fatal cases of food poisoning, is found in abundance in the intestinal tract of cows in particular, and can contaminate meat and other food products through contact with manure or unsanitary food handling practices.

Chicken, which can be eaten raw in some cases, also contains bacteria and parasites. According to a Food Safety Commission investigation, more than half of the meat sold in retail stores is thought to be contaminated with Campylobacter, a genus of Gram-negative bacteria frequently found in the intestinal tract of livestock and pets, and highly prevalent in poultry. Infections from eating contaminated raw chicken can cause diarrhea, vomiting, and fever, and in rare cases can develop into Guillain-Barre syndrome, a disorder that causes nerve paralysis and can be life-threatening if the respiratory muscles are affected.

60 percent of Japanese have eaten raw meat

In the past, people took for granted the practice of cooking meat thoroughly to prevent food poisoning, and the notion of eating raw pork was almost unheard of. Recently, however, food-safety awareness among consumers seems to be fading as more and more people are eating raw pork without a second thought. What is more, this phenomenon is not limited to eating out. Based on the misguided notion that ‘fresh means safe,' some people are eating raw wild game such as venison or boar, and some are even going as far to eat supermarket meat raw from the packet. One woman in her 40s was stunned to witness her younger acquaintance taste test raw meat while cooking.

Responses to the question, "Have you ever eaten raw meat?" All 1,000 participants are Tokyo citizens above 20 years of age (Graph courtesy of the 2011 survey of the consumption of raw meat in Tokyo Metropolis)

According to a 2011 survey, of the one-thousand Tokyo citizens asked about their experiences with eating raw meat, 60 percent answered either, "often eat (raw meat),"" occasionally eat," and "used to eat but not anymore." Food poisoning due to consumption of raw meat is on the rise, with the majority of patients in their 20s and 30s.

In the past, caution against eating uncooked meat was commonplace, but with the improvement in food hygiene and safety management, these warnings have all but disappeared.

Bolstered by a surge in B-class gourmet—a Japanese term for common but tasty dishes—and by a fading awareness of the risks of food poisoning among youngsters, the raw meat boom has flourished in the past few years as more and more restaurants offer raw meat on their menus.
Spread of Korean cuisine may have popularized raw meat dishes
Mankind first used fire to cook food around 2 million years ago. By roasting meat over a fire it could be eaten safely and tough meat could be tenderized, aiding digestion. In addition, by varying the methods of cooking, people came to enjoy food in a variety of ways.

If we look through the history of Japan's carnivorous habits, the people of the Jomon period (12,000 BC-300 BC) hunted wild boars and deer, and roasted and boiled their meat. With the introduction of Buddhism, eating meat became prohibited, at least outwardly, and it was not until after the Meiji period (1868-1912) that people began to eat meat on a wider scale again.

So why have modern Japanese reverted to eating meat raw?

In the Korean Peninsula, although the habit of eating internal organs is uncommon, there is a dish known as yukhoe, which is similar to steak tartare. It is thought that Korean residents in Japan may have introduced yukhoe and arranged it to suit the Japanese palate. This led to the birth of raw meat dishes such as liver sashimi. It is likely that these dishes spread across Japan along with yakiniku (grilled meat dishes) from towns with large Korean populations, such as Tsuruhashi in Osaka. As the number of yakiniku restaurants increased, so did the number of people who enjoyed eating raw meat, with yukhoe and liver sashimi becoming a popular and permanent part of the menu.

According to one owner of a family-run yakiniku restaurant in Tokyo, the number of customers during the summer season is usually high and many prefer to eat their meat rare. "People feel energized when they eat meat still oozing with blood together with garlic. Although meat might taste better when it's cooked, there are plenty of people who enjoy the unique texture of raw meat or the flavor of the fat inside."

Fresh doesn't always mean safe

In the past, this yakiniku restaurant also served liver and omasum (the third stomach of cows) sashimi, but decided to remove high-risk raw ingredients from the menu after food poisoning cases emerged throughout Japan. Since then, stories about the various ways to make meat safe to eat, such as washing the liver with alcohol or treating meat with acidic or alkaline electrolyzed water, circulated rapidly. These methods do not necessarily eliminate the risk of E.coli infection, however. Even after the ban, the owner recalls customers asking for cow liver sashimi.

Many people are under the false impression that meat is safe to eat as long as it's fresh or served from a reputable restaurant, but parasites and pathogens can still be present no matter how fresh the meat. There have even been cases of food poisoning due to eating food contaminated by tongs used to cook raw meat at barbeques. Extra care should be taken with young children and the elderly, who are more susceptible to serious infections. It would be wise to treat raw meat with caution—otherwise you may be faced with the irony of getting food poisoning from eating raw meat intended for an energy boost.

The author is a science writer, a Doctor of Agriculture, and a part-time biology lecturer at Meiji Gakuin University. As a leading researcher and teaching staff at her university, she writes for her faculty's PR magazine and website. She is also a researcher at a food company.

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