Ban on reef fish urged as 30 fall ill

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 09 March, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 09 March, 1999, 12:00am

Coral reef fish should be banned from restaurant menus, Hong Kong Chefs' Association president Urs Besmer said last night, in the wake of another ciguatera food poisoning outbreak.

Thirty people, including a two-year-old child, have been struck down with fever, vomiting, chills, sweats, muscle fatigue and numbness in the past three days, contracted from eating South Pacific coral reef fish.

It was the first major outbreak this year. More than 400 people were affected last year.

Over the weekend, three groups of people, eating at restaurants in Yau Ma Tei, Sha Tin and Kowloon City were sick after eating fish infested with toxic algae.

Another two groups of people, eating at home at Sheung Shui and Shamshuipo, were hit with food poisoning.

Mr Besmer said the larger species of coral reef fish which carry the algal toxins should be taken off menus and the public must stop demanding the delicacy.

'Absolutely they should stop using this. There are so many alternatives and other types of fish,' he said.

'It's the duty of the chef not to serve it - I would recommend they do not put the public at risk like this.' The fish responsible for the weekend outbreak were coral trout and flowery cod, fished from the waters of Kiribati in the South Pacific and brought into Hong Kong by a Kwun Tong wholesaler.

They were smaller than fish usually blamed for ciguatera poisoning, only weighing 900 grams to 1.7kg.

The 30 victims comprised 14 males and 16 females, aged from two to 80. Fifteen remain in hospital in a stable condition.

The supplier has stopped selling the fish while the Department of Health and the Agriculture and Fisheries Department investigate.

Ciguatera toxin accumulates in the heads of larger coral reef fish, after they consume smaller fish which feed on toxic algae.

Coral reef fish account for 15 per cent of imported live fish brought into Hong Kong each year, amounting to about 3,000 tonnes.

Last year, 420 people were hit with ciguatera poisoning in 117 separate cases.

Despite the outbreak, a Department of Health spokesman said people should not 'over-react and stop eating fish altogether'.

However, they should avoid eating the head, viscera, liver, gonads and skin, where the toxin is most concentrated. Those previously poisoned are more susceptible than others.

The department is about to distribute posters in markets and restaurants on how to avoid ciguatera poisoning.