Scombroid Poisoning: When A Yummy Dinner Turns Toxic

There’s nothing as wonderful as a dinner shared with people you love and a menu of fresh-caught tuna and yellowtail broiled with herbs, spices, olive oil and butter. That is, until dinner turns toxic. Five of us shared this yummy dinner and all five of us suffered the symptoms of scombroid poisoning. If it sounds gross, it is. Lots of trips to the porcelain goddess. But luckily for all of us, it wasn’t severe enough to send any of us to the doctor and it was mercifully short-lived.

Scombroid poisoning occurs when fish is not properly processed and/or stored. Our fish came from friends who caught it during a deep-sea fishing excursion off the California coast. We got a large, frozen ball of tuna and yellow-tail already cut into small pieces that we thawed in the refrigerator and then broiled. What we don’t know is under what conditions it was cut and stored before it was frozen.

Toxin Remains Despite Cooking

Cooking kills bacteria but doesn’t remove the histadine which is a naturally occurring substance in fish such as tuna, yellowtail, mackerel, mahi-mahi, amber jack, and more. When the fish is exposed to air and reaches 60 degrees, the histadine breaks down into “biogenic amines” ammonia-based compounds such as histamine; these toxins cause poisoning when ingested.

One clue that there was something amiss, at least in my portion, was an odd metallic taste. Overall, the fish tasted great but there was this odd taste that I attributed to the lemon juice used in seasoning. I usually don’t put lemon juice on my fish and no one else seemed to notice the taste, so I thought it was just me. But it could have been that I was either more sensitive or had pieces that had more of the histamine in it since I also had the most severe symptoms.

Symptoms of Scombroid Poisoning

At dinner, my husband looked flushed and we thought it was just too much sun. Eileen was sweating and after dinner felt a sense of unease so great it brought her to tears but we thought it was stress. When my head felt funny (pounding in the back) and I began to turn red all over and felt feverish I knew something was up. One trip to the loo confirmed it. Then when my husband and Eileen also had stomach cramps (and associated loo calls), we realized it was something we all ate. The next morning, Robert called to say he also had had many of the same symptoms. And Jim (the final dinner companion) had the fewest and least severe symptoms but still had some.

This type of food poisoning mimics an allergic reaction:

  • redness/flushing of the face
  • fever and/or sweating
  • headache
  • stomach cramps, vomiting, and diarrhea
  • cold/flu-like symptoms
  • torso/body rash, itching and/or hives
  • palpitations
  • feeling of unease, distress

Food Poisoning Clues

We all developed at least some of the symptoms so even though it looked like an allergic reaction I knew it had to be food poisoning. We had both salad and fish for dinner but fish seemed like a good target for research. One internet search for “toxins in tuna and yellow-tail” quickly made sense of all our varied symptoms, especially the all-over body rash that I’d never before experienced with food poisoning (yes, I’ve had it before). Luckily by morning everyone was fine.

While I think we did all our prep and cooking right, we still fell victim to this food-borne illness that looks like an allergic reaction. So instead of adding the left-over fish to salad or making it into a fine fish chowder, we’ll throw the rest away. One bout with scombroid food poisoning is enough for me.

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