Toxic Fish Making People Sick, FDA Warns

Toxic fish from the Gulf of Mexico has been blamed for several outbreaks of <"">ciguatera fish poisoning, prompting the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) to issue a warning today.  Several outbreaks of ciguatera poisoning were confirmed in Washington, D.C., and St. Louis, the FDA said. Overall, there have been at least 28 reported cases across the country, with the first case being reported in late November.

While rare in the US, ciguatera is the most common type of fish borne food poisoning in the world, and most cases occur in the Caribbean.  Ciguatera symptoms occur within six hours of consumption and range from nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, to neurological symptoms including headache, sensory disorientation, vertigo and muscular weakness. The disease is rarely fatal, but in severe cases symptoms can linger for months or years. There is no way to cure ciguatera, but the symptoms can be treated while the disease runs its course.  It is important that ciguatera victims avoid dehydration, and sometimes intravenous fluids are required.

According to the FDA warning, grouper, snapper, amberjack and barracuda are the most likely species of fish to carry ciguatera. They feed on fish that have eaten toxic marine algae. The toxin is stable in the tissue of living fish and does them no harm. But larger carnivores have higher concentrations of the toxin in their tissues. As a result, the greatest risk of poisoning for humans comes from the largest fish.

The FDA said the fish linked to the ciguatera outbreaks were harvested near the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary, an area of 56 square miles in the northwestern Gulf.   The FDA said it now considers ciguatera a food safety hazard that is reasonably likely to occur in grouper, snapper, and hogfish captured within 10 miles of the marine sanctuary and in amberjack, barracuda and other wide-ranging species captured within 50 miles of the sanctuary. Ciguatera is common in fish living in tropical and subtropical regions, including the Caribbean Sea, the South Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean. But the FDA has considered it rare for fish in the northern Gulf of Mexico to have the toxin.

The FDA recommends that processors not purchase fish harvested near the sanctuary. The FDA also warned processors to reassess their hazard control plans as necessary, and that failure to take proper precautions may cause products to be considered adulterated by the agency.  The agency is also asking those consumers who experience ciguatera symptoms to report their illness, as well as any fish they ate, to a doctor or local health department.

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