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Raw fish for my baby?
December 15, 2008 6:44 PM   Subscribe

When is it OK to feed my baby sashimi?

What is the youngest age can babies or toddlers safely eat sushi or sashimi? I know my child isn't allergic to fish or crustacea, so that isn't a consideration. All my Googling around seemed to turn up was panicky information about why babies shouldn't eat it at a young age because of allergy concerns, or why they shouldn't eat it at all because of mercury levels in the fish. Given that I don't plan on giving my baby sashimi all that often, I would really love the straight dope - when is it safe to give my child (freshest, top quality) raw fish and shellfish? If anyone lives in Japan or grew up in Japan, I would love to know when you were first fed raw fish.*

Also... if I'm not pushing the question too far, what about rare meat such as beef? It kind of breaks my heart to cook a piece of beef to death for safety reasons.

*My reason for asking: From my observation of kids from, say, India or Latin American cultures often enjoy eating spicy foods at a really young age when consensus among early childhood folk I've met here in Australia seems to be that it's a really bad idea, and that kids "won't like it". We feed our child a tiny amount of chili or pepper from time to time, which he seems OK with.
posted by lottie to Food & Drink (28 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
I can very clearly remember eating hwe (sashimi) with my Korean parents at three; doesn't mean I wasn't eating it earlier.* I have no idea what kinds of risks parasites pose for a kid vs. an adult, but on the mercury issue - it makes sense that you wouldn't cut out sashimi on those grounds unless you were cutting out all fish, cooked or raw. You could go with lower-mercury fish and save the tuna until he gets a bit bigger, though. Here is an interesting Chowhound thread on the topic.

*They also fed me yuk hwe (steak tartare, egg yolk and all) that young, too; who knows what that could do.
posted by peachfuzz at 6:57 PM on December 15, 2008 [1 favorite]


I'd follow breastfeeding rules: go to a trusted place where you are absolutely sure of the freshness. As far as an age, I'm not sure, but also curious.
posted by k8t at 7:06 PM on December 15, 2008


My daughter first had sashimi at five. (She asked to try some, and she was at a finicky stage, so I didn't want to discourage her. Imagine my surprise when she loved it.) Now, at almost seven, she likes her meat as rare as possible. And has an insatiable taste for sushi.
posted by Ruki at 7:06 PM on December 15, 2008


Eating spicy foods is a lot different than eating undercooked foods. Wait until your child turns five before eating sushi. An intestinal parasite is nothing to sneeze at.

You have to really, really watch what raw fish you're feeding your below-seven kid, both because of parasites, and also because of toxins.

Because of its high fat content (it spoils) salmon is generally rarely served raw. As well, most, if not all of the salmon sold in the United States is farmed, and is full of toxins. Because of their smaller bodies, young children are at risk from toxins and heavy metals.

Tuna, a perennial sushi favourite, is also not the best fish to feed a young child or baby, because tuna, being an apex predator, is full of heavy metals and other accumulated toxins.

If you're going to feed your child fish, try smaller fish found at the bottom of the food chain, like sardines, mackerel, chad, and other bluefish.

Our son (my wife is Japanese, our son was born there and we go back often for extended periods of time) didn't start eating raw fish until he turned five, mostly because he didn't like the taste. Nobody really starts feeding their kids raw fish until they turn five. Some kids don't like the taste.

But it makes sense: cooking food kills parasites and bacteria that adult bodies can easily fend off. Considering that diarrhea is the number-one killer of children world wide, cooking food seems to be a safe way to make sure your baby stays healthy.

Anyway, in Japanese culture, there's a ceremony called "お食い初め" (o-kui-zome), which is the "ceremony celebrating a baby's weaning" (we did ours at six months). That was purely ceremonial - we pulled out a large sea bream and fed our son a little bit, bit that was just for ceremony. We were careful to feed out son pretty plain foods for the first year or so...

However, there is another interesting Japanese custom called "shichi-go-san", or "7-5-3", which is a ceremony marking the birthday for each age.

Infant mortality rates are highest up to age 5, and then decline after that. Generally, if you make to age seven you will probably make it until your sixties or seventies. Wait until your child turns five before experimenting with gourmet foods.
posted by KokuRyu at 7:08 PM on December 15, 2008 [6 favorites]


Just FYI: I mentioned the spicy foods thing not by way of correlating spicy foods to raw foods, but in regard to the difference in cultural acceptance of certain culinary concepts. If I were to follow the Western "mandate", my child would not be eating spicy foods for a very long time, when clearly they are enjoyed by young children in other cultures at a pretty young age - I've seen Mexican kids down the chilli powder on their tamarind and mango candy like it's nothing at all. I want to understand if the raw fish thing is based on a similar cultural conservatism.
posted by lottie at 7:16 PM on December 15, 2008


I can't give you the straight dope, but I can offer an anecdote; we didn't give our daughter sashimi until she was old enough to understand that chewing food thoroughly is important. The idea behind this is that fish, no matter the freshness or perceived quality, cary parasites and parasite eggs. Thorough chewing can (according to the theory) grind the bugs and their eggs up to the point where they're not a problem.

She had her first sashimi about half a year ago, and loves it.
posted by lekvar at 7:19 PM on December 15, 2008


I want to understand if the raw fish thing is based on a similar cultural conservatism.

In part, certainly, but the plus factor there is that children are uniquely vulnerable to illness and to heavy metal toxicity. Both of those issues are likely to be much better answered by your pediatrician than elsewhere.

Also... if I'm not pushing the question too far, what about rare meat such as beef?

As a person who contracted E. Coli 0157:H7 (resident in bovine intestines) at a very young age with a fairly bad outcome, undercooked beef is not for kids. You get a little more wiggle room with steak than with ground beef, but this is not a place where the cost/benefit analysis would permit straying far from the official recommendations.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 7:30 PM on December 15, 2008 [2 favorites]


I'm raising two little ones in Japan, and they started eating sashimi around the age of two. Little buggers can't get enough of it. :)

I have no idea whether or not toxins etc. are an issue, but I don't think parasites are. These are present only in some very specific fish, such as mackerel, I think.

Anyway, no one here seems to think it odd that they are eating sashimi at the age of two. I recommend ikura to start them out. They seem to like that.
posted by zachawry at 7:38 PM on December 15, 2008


As well, most, if not all of the salmon sold in the United States is farmed, and is full of toxins.

"Commercial fishermen harvested 146 million salmon in 2008, the 16th largest harvest in Alaska's history of statehood. The 2008 harvest was 67 million fish less than the 2007 harvest of 213 million fish."
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 7:44 PM on December 15, 2008


As well, most, if not all of the salmon sold in the United States is farmed, and is full of toxins.

Yeah, this is definitely not true. Salmon will be marked as farmed or wild caught and is widely available raw on the West Coast of the US. If you're going for lower mercury look for sockeye (red) salmon.
posted by fshgrl at 8:04 PM on December 15, 2008


Just out of curiosity, what specific toxins are people referring to?
posted by electroboy at 8:08 PM on December 15, 2008


I live in Vancouver, Canada, where sushi is very popular. My community health dietitian told me that raw fish should not be part of a child's diet till age seven, given the risks of intestinal parasites and other ailments. She also insisted that everyone should eat well-cooked meat, given the risk of E. coli.

Also, from what I understand, wasabi helps to kill some of the parasites. So, if your little one isn't dipping the raw fish into wasabi, there will be a higher level of parasites, increasing the risk.

I give my (younger than seven) kids sushi, but not raw sushi. They love avocado, cucumber, prawn tempura, crab, egg, yam, assorted veggie, tofu and other options.

As for spicy foods, several studies here in Vancouver suggest that you can start putting spice into foods by the time the baby is about seven months old, assuming they aren't showing signs of allergies. My kids love an assortment of spicy foods. However, they don't eat anything incredibly spicy and I made sure they were on to yogurt before giving them anything too zesty, since the yogurt cools things down. A friend of mine comes from Mexico and she says the custom there is to give the teeniest bit of habanero at about 12 months and then gradually increase from there -- but that little kids don't eat terribly spicy food. One thing to keep in mind is that a smaller baby may not be able to communicate with you about the effects of spicy food. (A 13 or 14 month old might be able to shake their head and say no, but you won't see that from a nine month old who has a mouth on fire. And it probably takes a 24-month-old to tell you that their bowel movements burn.)
posted by acoutu at 8:34 PM on December 15, 2008 [1 favorite]


At the risk of threadjacking, and for the purpose of clarification: we are discussing toxins here because said toxins don't exist in cooked fish because the heat somehow neutralises them?
posted by nihraguk at 8:37 PM on December 15, 2008


I live in Vancouver, Canada, where sushi is very popular. My community health dietitian told me that raw fish should not be part of a child's diet till age seven, given the risks of intestinal parasites and other ailments.

The Vancouver Coastal Health Authority uses and enforces the US FDA's Guaranteed Parasite Destruction Standard of freezing on all fish sold in restaurants for raw or semi-raw consumption, i.e. below -4C for at least 7 days, or below -35C for at least 15 hours.

The irony is that while this renders Vancouver sushi very safe to eat (even for infants), it tastes rather different from the "real" thing. Which probably doesn't matter anyway since the most popular rolls here ("Dynamite" rolls, "BC" rolls, "California" rolls...WTF?) don't resemble anything like the "real" thing.
posted by randomstriker at 9:38 PM on December 15, 2008


Fish with high toxin content should not be eaten by small children whether cooked or raw. The EPA provides a fact sheet on mercury levels in fish including a list of fish that should not be eaten by pregnant women or children.

Raw fish just has the additional parasite and bacteria issue.

In the United States, FDA regulations specify that most fish to be consumed raw must be frozen at certain temperatures for a specific length of time. This kills parasites.

You should ask your sushi chefs to make sure the fish has been properly frozen previously if you are feeding it to your children. If you're not sure, they probably shouldn't be eating it.

This does not apply to deep-sea tuna, I believe, because parasites are very rarely an issue in this fish. But young children should not consume much tuna because of the mercury content. And I say this as a former tuna-salad-loving first grader.

Farmed salmon can be very high in PCBs and additional detrimental chemicals. Most salmon served as sushi is indeed farmed because wild salmon tends to be too lean and is often more expensive. All salmon, farmed or wild, should be previously frozen if being eaten raw because salmon is extremely susceptible to parasites.

I'd probably wait until your kid is capable of talking to you to give them raw fish. If something doesn't feel right, you want them to be able to tell you.

Anything made from pre-ground beef needs to be cooked to temperatures that will kill E. coli and other bacteria (160°F). Same applies to poultry, including all chicken and ground turkey (165°F). I love a rare burger, but the contamination rates are just too high to feed them to kids.

The reason steak is less of an issue is that the inside of a cut of beef generally does not contain harmful bacteria. The surfaces may, however. The USDA says that cooking whole-muscle cuts of beef to an internal temperature of 145°F (medium rare) is safe.

Raw eggs are another thing. Official USDA policy is that no one should eat any eggs that have not been cooked to a temperature of at least 165°F. That means firm yolks. It's meant to kill salmonella.

However, the salmonella contamination rate is approximately 1 out of 40,000 eggs. On average, you'd have to eat an egg a day for over a hundred years to hit a bad one. For me, this is one of those cases where I'd let the kids (older than age 2-3 or so) have yolks they can dip toast into, and eating raw or undercooked eggs is very common for kids elsewhere in the world, but you might not be comfortable with it.

By the way, along the same lines, produce needs to be washed thoroughly and/or cooked, and stuff like hot dogs should be cooked thoroughly. I'd be more concerned about my kid getting listeria from an undercooked hot dog than I would about two small pieces of raw scallop. It amazes me that some people will let their kindergarteners eat hot dogs raw out of the package and then talk about how dangerous sushi and raw-milk cheeses are — we sicken far more people on contaminated packaged hot dogs, unpasteurized juice, and raw green onions and tomatoes.
posted by jeeves at 9:42 PM on December 15, 2008 [1 favorite]


Aren't hot dogs already cooked? I thought they were basically a bologna-like lunch meat in a different form factor.
posted by IvyMike at 10:40 PM on December 15, 2008 [1 favorite]


Yes, most hot dogs are fully cooked in the sense that the meat isn't raw anymore, but they still need to be heated to bacteria-killing temperatures once they're removed from the package because they can carry listeria. Some deli meats can carry it too.
posted by jeeves at 11:51 PM on December 15, 2008


We were told age 3 by our pediatrician as a common-sense age for introducing things like that. She is 18 months and has a wonderful relationship with our sushi chef. She tastes quite a few things, but I don't think we would be giving her anything yet more than the nibbles that accompany rice and other things she eats regularly. Frankly, I'm much more concerned by the convenience foods and snacks she sometimes gets at school.
posted by mrmojoflying at 7:05 AM on December 16, 2008


It amazes me that some people will let their kindergarteners eat hot dogs raw out of the package and then talk about how dangerous sushi and raw-milk cheeses are — we sicken far more people on contaminated packaged hot dogs, unpasteurized juice, and raw green onions and tomatoes.

The obvious explanation for that is many more people consume the latter than the former.
posted by electroboy at 7:46 AM on December 16, 2008


Obvious, but it may not be correct. The incidence of listeriosis in France, where fresh raw milk cheese is common, is similar to that in the United States. In the US, we get our listeria from hot dogs, lox, deli meats, pasteurized cheeses and milk, and packaged foods like coleslaw, hummus, sour cream dips, sandwiches, potato salad/pasta/egg salad, etc. with some cases also coming from fresh produce like lettuce. With the exception of the produce, all of these foods are cooked or pasteurized and processed. Even in France, it's thought that listeria is commonly introduced during processing and packaging in addition to the possible raw milk vector.

Anyway, I wouldn't give raw dairy products to a very small child or pregnant woman, though I choose to eat them myself when I have the opportunity. I think the point is that we fear or ban foods that are common elsewhere but ignore comparable risks from things we consume regularly. Risk is risk. Most outbreaks of food poisoning here come from vegetables, fruits, and undercooked shellfish (oysters, e.g.). How many people do you know who are nervous about getting on an airplane but don't hesitate to drive to work every day?
posted by jeeves at 1:15 PM on December 16, 2008


At the risk of threadjacking, and for the purpose of clarification: we are discussing toxins here because said toxins don't exist in cooked fish because the heat somehow neutralises them?


Toxins are waste products of living organisms. Cooking does not eliminate toxins. Many people apply the label of "toxin" to anything that they consider to be undesirable, like heavy metals (which also are not eliminated by cooking), or like yeast (which can be killed through cooking).

Be suspicious of people who throw that word around, they are usually trying to sell you something.
posted by kamikazegopher at 2:24 PM on December 16, 2008



The 渋谷区 (Shibuya-ku) paperwork on our fridge list fish under 9 months, the mogu-mogu stage. Which may not include sashimi/sushi. I know all the locals, and their babies eat sushi between 1-2 years old. We asked out Doctor about dietary restrictions while we were pregnant, and were told to avoid eating "cold foods". We followed up with "even sushi is ok?" only to be given confused stares. "Of course sushi is ok". Japan has one of the lowest miscarriage, and infant deaths, so perhaps they are onto something.

But having said all that, I _feel_ Japan's food care, education and treatment of food, to be very high. If you do not live in Japan, I do not know if you could trust the sashimi.
posted by lundman at 6:22 PM on December 16, 2008


Yes, toxins and parasites are the real concern. It's not some issue of cultural squick; these things are a serious and genuine health issue when you're dealing with vulnerable young systems. As with any health matter pertaining to children, I would skip the internet information and ask your pediatrician about this. S/he might also recommend some fish over others when you hit the appropriate age (ones that are less likely to accumulate mercury and other contaminants, for instance). Ditto on raw beef.

It's your kid's health. Don't mess around with us amateurs. Ask their doctor what's okay and what isn't.
posted by Herkimer at 6:40 PM on December 16, 2008


Well, not all of us are amateurs, but none of us are their doctor, that we know anyway.
posted by Herkimer at 6:43 PM on December 16, 2008


The incidence of listeriosis in France, where fresh raw milk cheese is common, is similar to that in the United States.

Listeria is only one of the potentially harmful things in raw milk. What about e. coli, salmonella, brucella and campylobactr? There's really very little scientific debate concerning the safety of raw milk, and no evidence to support that there are any benefits to consuming raw milk. If you prefer it and are willing to take the risk, that's your choice, but it's irresponsible to try to convince people that they're not increasing their exposure to food borne pathogens.
posted by electroboy at 11:05 PM on December 16, 2008


Cost-benefit analysis. Deaths from food poisoning are uncommon, and most of them are in vulnerable populations: very young children, the elderly, and the immunocompromised. For some of us, the benefits (i.e., deliciousness) for older children and adults with healthy immune systems can outweigh the risks. In the specific case of young raw milk cheeses, the French and the Québécois agree with me. The USDA does not. So the cheeses are legal there, illegal here. (Everyone agrees that very young children and pregnant women should not consume them, however.)

My main concern is that accurate views of risk be available to people. I'd never deceive people about the possible dangers of a raw milk cheese, but yes, I will tell people that they taste good and that most people can eat them without worry. Draw the bright line of irresponsibility where you think best. We ban young camembert; the French don't allow driving until age 18. On this comparison, I think they're smarter.
posted by jeeves at 11:54 AM on December 17, 2008


My main concern is that accurate views of risk be available to people.

Ok, so give us an accurate view of the risk, from a source other than the Weston A Price foundation.
posted by electroboy at 12:15 PM on December 17, 2008


I've said what I feel is relevant to the OP's question; please MeFiMail me if you'd like to continue talking.
posted by jeeves at 1:03 PM on December 17, 2008


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