Battling bureaucracies: Eat lionfish? Sure, but beware of the nasty toxins

A federal plan to battle invasive lionfish by dishing them up on America’s dinner plates may have backfired with the news that the flamboyantly-finned creatures can harbor a potentially dangerous neurotoxin.

JoNel Aleccia of mswnbc writes two years ago, officials with NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, launched a well-publicized campaign, complete with flashy pull-cards, a lionfish cookbook and a catchy slogan. As one newsletter put it, “If we can’t beat them, let’s eat them."

“Once stripped of its venomous spines, cleaned and filleted like any other fish, the lionfish becomes delectable seafood fare,” NOAA officials enthused.

But another government agency, the Food and Drug Administration, now frowns on the “Eat Lionfish” campaign after tests of nearly 200 lionfish show that more than a quarter exceed federal levels for a toxin that can cause ciguatera, a potentially dangerous fish food poisoning.

“We certainly don’t promote any campaign like that since we have found levels above our guidance,” said Alison Robertson, the FDA’s lead ciguatera researcher for the chemical hazards branch of the Gulf Coast Seafood laboratory. “It certainly wouldn’t be our recommendation at this time.”

Robertson said she and other FDA scientists decided to test the lionfish in the summer of 2010 after hearing about NOAA’s gustatory effort.

Of 194 fish tested, 42 percent showed detectable levels of ciguatoxin and 26 percent were above the FDA’s illness threshold of 0.1 parts per billion.

That’s enough to potentially sicken a diner with the illness that causes not only typical food poisoning symptoms – diarrhea, vomiting and fatigue – but also neurological problems such as painfully tingling hands and feet, a feeling of having loose teeth, and, oddest of all, a reversed sense of temperature.

“Whatever I touched, if it was hot, it would feel cold. If it was cold, it felt hot,” ciguatera victim Pat Schroeder of Beaumont, Texas, told three years ago. “I couldn’t walk on the tile floor. It felt like it was burning me.”

At least 50,000 cases of ciguatera poisoning are reported worldwide each year, but the real figure may be 100 times higher, experts say. There are dozens of confirmed reports of ciguatera poisoning in the U.S. each year with more than 300 logged by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention between 2005 and 2009, according to the agency’s database. There were 84 cases in 2007, for instance, including 29 people sickened at a single dinner party.