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As liontamer points out, eating the meat of fugu, or Japanese blowfish, has never been particularly dangerous. While it is well known that fugu fish frequently contain the powerful neurotoxin known as tetrodotoxin, one gram of which would be enough to kill 500 people through paralysis and eventual suffocation, the toxin is only found in the fish's liver, and occasionally a few other innards, such as the ovaries and the intestines. As long as these organs are removed before consumption, the fish is perfectly safe to eat.

The true thrill in eating fugu used to lie in eating the liver, which contains the lethal tetrodotoxin approximately 60 percent of the time. Indeed, the most famous victim of fugu poisoning, renowned kabuki actor Bando Mitsugoro VIII, died at age 69 in 1975 from eating fugu liver he prepared himself in his Kyoto home. But serving fugu liver or other parts deemed dangerous has been banned for more than 20 years, with hefty punishments of three years in prison or a $30,000 fine, which along with an exacting testing and licensing program for fugu chefs, has limited deaths by fugu to a mere 3 in 2003, and all of those resulted from amateur in-home preparation. Suffice to say, you can go eat your fugu with serenity of mind.

Recent research presented at a 2004 convention of the Food Hygenics Society of Japan, however, suggests that even fugu liver may be made safe for consumption. Scientists at Nagasaki University found that the blowfish does not itself produce the tetrodotoxin. Rather, the toxin is produced by bacteria ingested when the fish feed on contaminated creatures living on the sea floor, such as crabs, shellfish, and starfish. When researchers raised fugu for three years in cages suspended three meters above the seabed and fed them only uncontaminated fish and krill, all the fugu were found to be tetrodotoxin-free.

The research suggests that a time may soon come when the 1983 ban on serving fugu liver and other innards will be lifted by the Japanese government, especially considering that 80 percent of fugu on the market are already cultivated on fish farms to begin with. But many people wonder what would happen to the thrill of eating fugu liver if all fugu were raised in hermetic conditions to be 100 percent guaranteed safe. Yoshiyasu Taniguchi, a 64-year-old chef at Tokyo fugu restaurant Uonao, said that "In the old days, connoiseurs delighted in eating fugu liver to cherish the tingling and numbness it produced." But Shigeru Nakanishi, third-generation owner of Tokyo fugu restaurant Hyotan, dismissed the thrills ascribed to the brush with death: "You should not focus too much on the liver. The numbness is just a distraction. What is essential is how well the various parts of the fish are prepared."

Quotations from the the Japan Times, May 18, 2004.