An elderly couple has died after eating poisonous pufferfish in Malaysia, prompting an appeal from their daughter for stronger laws to prevent others from suffering the same fate.
Commonly referred to as ‘fugu’ – the Japanese term for pufferfish – pufferfish meat is enjoyed as a highly-priced delicacy despite containing deadly poison.
The fish’s organs, as well as skin, blood and bones, contain high concentrations of a deadly poison known as tetrodotoxin. Ingestion can rapidly cause tingling around the mouth and dizziness, which may be followed by convulsions, respiratory paralysis and death, medical experts say.
It is most commonly served in high-end Tokyo restaurants as sashimi and hot pot ingredients but has also caught on in popularity in countries like South Korea and Singapore, where dedicated fugu restaurants operate.
Under Japanese law, fugu chefs must undergo extensive apprenticeships of up to three years before they are licensed and allowed to handle and prepare the fish for food. Incorrectly prepared fugu has been found to be one of the most frequent causes of food poisoning in Japan, according to its health ministry.
Ng Chuan Sing and his wife Lim Siew Guan, both in their early 80s, unknowingly purchased at least two pufferfish from an online vendor on March 25, said authorities in the southern state of Johor.
The same day Lim fried the fish for lunch and began to experience “breathing difficulties and shivers,” authorities said.
An hour after eating the meal, her husband Ng also started showing similar symptoms, they added.
The couple was rushed to hospital and admitted to the intensive care unit, and Lim was pronounced dead at 7p.m. local time.
Ng fell into a coma for eight days but his condition worsened and he died on Saturday morning, said the couple’s daughter, Ng Ai Lee, who gave a press conference at the couple’s home on Sunday before their funeral.
Ng demanded accountability for her parents’ death and for stronger laws in Malaysia, where at least 30 species of pufferfish are commonly found in surrounding waters.
“Those responsible for their deaths should be held accountable under the law and I hope the authorities will speed up investigations,” Ng said. “I also hope the Malaysian government will beef up enforcement and help to raise public awareness on pufferfish poisoning to prevent such incidents from happening again.”
Malaysian law prohibits the sale of poisonous and harmful food like pufferfish meat and the offense carries a fine of RM10,000 ($2,300) or a prison term of up to two years.
Despite the dangers, poisonous pufferfish are sold at many Malaysian wet markets, experts said. “It’s considered exotic and tends to attract consumers,” said Aileen Tan, a marine biologist and director at the Universiti Sains Malaysia Centre for Marine and Coastal Studies.
“Once pufferfish have been cleaned and sold as slices, it is nearly impossible for the public to know the type of fish that they purchased,” Tan warned. “As for sellers, it is debatable on their (part) if they are aware (of the risks).”
“There needs to be more awareness about the risks of consuming puffer fish – maybe authorities need to look at special certifications for vendors and suppliers,” she said.