Raw Meat and Fish: Is It Safe?

When I was in holistic nutrition school I was told many times that raw meats and fish are no-nos. The argument was that the risk of contracting parasites, whose microscopic eggs can often be found in raw meat products but which are normally destroyed during cooking, is too great and not worth it.

This idea, like a few that are firmly rooted in holistic nutrition circles, bothered me a bit. Eating raw fish is something that has been practiced in Japan, not to mention by the Inuit up north, for centuries; possibly even millennia. In fact the eating of raw meats can be found in many traditional cultures, including French (steak tartar), Italian (carpaccio) and Middle Eastern (kibbeh). In other words, the eating of raw animal protein has formed the foundation of many cultures that have all survived and even thrived.

Once I read the work of Sally Fallon things all came into place. Her book Nourishing Traditions, which I’ve mentioned several times in these blogs, details the work of Dr. Weston Price who studied extensively the diets of traditional peoples (many of whom have since had their healthy traditional practices lost in favor of modern convenience foods). Fallon describes the safe, traditional ways for consuming raw meats and seafoods.

First of all, it almost goes without saying that all raw meat you’re eating should be organic. And when consuming raw meat, make sure to freeze it for 14 days prior to serving it. The USDA has stated that this practice kills all parasites. It is also a good idea to eat some of the fat with meat, too, since animal fats contain anti-microbial fatty acids. Never eat raw poultry as it can easily be contaminated with salmonella (although a friend once told me of a chicken farmer he knew who would eat fresh raw chicken regularly and never had any problem with bacterial infection).

When dealing with fish, freezing it first isn’t really workable since the consistency of frozen and thawed fish is mushy and unappetizing. Fallon suggests adopting the practice of Latin American cultures who marinate raw fish in citrus juices before consuming them. This is called ceviche (se-vee’-chay), and it is truly delicious. The acid from the citrus juice will kill any parasites present.

Traditionally, the raw fish eaten in Japan, as sushi, is served with wasabi and pickled ginger which have anti-parasitic qualities. However, the quality of wasabi and pickled ginger served in most sushi restaurants in North America is questionable. Real wasabi is difficult to come by as it needs very specific conditions to be able to grow and is thus quite rare. Chances are you’ve never had the real stuff, but rather a close approximation made from dehydrated horseradish and green food coloring. And the pickled ginger served isn’t pickled so much as soaked in rice wine vinegar, aspartame and red food coloring (in days gone by pickled ginger likely would have been fermented with beneficial bacterial culture, which would add another anti-microbial effect to the natural anti-parasitic ginger). I don’t know that I would trust these modern pseudo-condiments to prevent parasitic infection like their traditional counterparts.

The fact is that parasite infection is somewhat common in Japan and Korea and this may be due to the consumption of raw fish. I will say that if you are going to eat sushi, you should be supplementing with probiotics. Probiotics represent the first line of defense of the human immune system and, while it’s not a guarantee, beneficial intestinal bacteria help to prevent parasites from taking hold in the digestive tract and can even help to clear them out once they’ve settled in.

This being said, eating raw meat and fish can be quite healthy if the proper precautions are taken. Such animal fats provide needed omega 3 and 6 fatty acids which can be destroyed when the meat is cooked. Also, fat soluble vitamins such as A and D, which also risk destruction when exposed to heat, are fully available in raw animal protein. As long as you take care, these meat and fish dishes can be a healthy addition to your diet.

Author: Doug DiPasquale