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[Opinion] Globefish Poison

Posted June. 23, 2008 05:56,   


Why do people have a craving for globefish despite the inherent danger of poisoning? They apparently do not mind risking their lives as long as they can please their palates. Globefish is so well known for its toxicity that the Korean poet Pyeon Bu-gyeong used it as a theme in one of her poems. Though eating globefish has gotten safer thanks to better cooking techniques, things were different in the past. For example, the famous Chinese poet Su Dongpo (1037-1101) of the Northern Song Dynasty described globefish as having “the taste of death.”

The English explorer James Cook (1728–1779) was the first to write about people addicted to globefish eggs. He wrote in his logbooks that his men ate a tropical fish later assumed to be globefish in their voyages and fed his pigs on ship with the fish’s guts. The men displayed symptoms of paralysis and breathing difficulty while all the pigs died. The culprit was tetrodotoxin, a toxin extracted from globefish ovaries by Japanese scientist Dahara Yoshizumi in 1909.

Tetrodotoxin is found only in the eggs and guts of globefish, not in the meat. Using globefish as an example to assuage the Korean public’s fear over mad cow disease, a government official said, “Just as globefish is safe for eating as long as the toxin is removed, U.S. beef is also safe as long as specified risk materials are removed.” Indeed tetrodotoxin is a deadly poison whose toxicity is 1,000 times that of potassium cyanide. Furthermore, a kilogram of globefish contains enough toxins to kill 33 adults. Thus only highly experienced cooks should handle the fish.

Tetrodotoxin poisoning was confirmed as the cause of death for two men found dead in a car parked on the shoulder of an expressway in April. They were on their way to play golf that day. One of them, a doctor, had bought the toxin from China earlier, raising questions over why they took a fatal dose given the doctor’s occupation. In medicine, tetrodotoxin is used as a painkiller for patients suffering from terminal cancer or migraines. They might have used the toxin to relieve pain ahead of a 36-hole golf game that usually takes nearly 10 hours, but no one will know for sure.

Editorial Writer Jeong Seong-hee (shchung@donga.com)