A rare toxin carried by barracuda, grouper and other locally caught sport fish sickens Floridians in greater numbers than previously believed, a new analysis suggests. Consuming the foodborne toxin, called ciguatera, can result in severe nausea and vomiting and sometimes long-term tingling in the limbs or joint pain. “The rate of illness was found to be higher than previously estimated. Areas around Miami and in the Florida Keys are particularly affected,” according to study author Elizabeth Radke, Ph.D. She said that the findings confirm current warnings to avoid eating barracuda, while also indicating that, at least in Florida, grouper, amberjack, hogfish, snapper, mackerel and mahi mahi were also associated with illness. Most of the fish causing infections in Florida are caught in the Bahamas and the Florida Keys, the researchers concluded. However, experts say the absolute risk for contracting ciguatera poisoning remains rare. And it doesn’t appear to be increasing statewide, even if earlier estimates now need to be revised upward. The findings are published in the June 29 issue of the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene. “I don’t think that people necessarily need to stop eating these other fish, but they need to be aware there is a risk, and if they start feeling sick after eating, they should see a physician,” Radke added in a journal news release. Hispanics had the highest rate of ciguatera poisonings in Florida, possibly because of cultural tendencies to eat barracuda, she said. For the study, researchers from the University of Florida’s Emerging Pathogens Institute and the Florida Department of Health surveyed thousands of recreational salt-water fishermen in the state and compared the results with public health records. The investigators estimated that 5.6 cases occur per every 100,000 people in Florida — far more than the previously recorded 0.2 cases per 100,000 state residents. The reasons for the discrepancy is that many anglers who said they developed the illness didn’t visit a doctor, while others saw doctors who didn’t make a proper diagnosis. Ciguatera poisoning is the world’s most common form of fish-related food poisoning, the researchers noted. The toxin is found in algae growing on coral reefs in warm tropical and subtropical ocean waters, with the risk highest in fish from the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific and Indian oceans. More information on ciguatera poisoning is available here from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Additional information from the Florida Department of Health is here.
(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)