“Gas station sushi” has become something of a punchline, a thing that one obviously should not eat, a thing that should not exist. But is sushi really any more likely to give you food poisoning than the ham sandwich sitting right next to it in the gas station cooler? And is it really that different from sushi prepared at a fancy restaurant?
To find out if anything really is fishy with gas station sushi, I asked Don Schaffner, a food safety expert at Rutgers University.
Is gas station sushi safe?
“If it’s not made with raw fish (i.e. California roll),” Schaffner says, “it’s probably the same risk as the ham sandwich. If it is made with raw fish I’d steer clear.”
Sushi is probably best known for its morsels of raw fish, but plenty of sushi dishes use seafood that has been cooked. California rolls are made with cooked crab (or, often, “imitation crab” that is actually made of fish). Eel (unagi) is always cooked. Shrimp, squid, octopus, and clam are often cooked.
California rolls are probably the most common type of prepackaged sushi (and personally, I love a Trader Joe’s spicy California roll), so that may be your best option next time you’re at a gas station and have a hankering for sushi. If the offerings only include raw fish, though, you may be better off waiting until you can get to a proper sushi restaurant.
Where it comes from matters more when the fish is raw
Raw fish can be delicious, but it does carry a higher risk of parasites and food-borne disease than most cooked foods.
Some lower quality sushi is made with tuna scrape, which is a raw fish product that has been linked with Salmonella outbreaks. It’s not necessarily unsafe, but the fact that it’s more highly processed means it has more chances to become contaminated.
Schaffner says he does eat raw sushi, but only at an actual sushi restaurant. “I don’t want that risk [from raw fish] to be handled by the lowest bidder on the gas station sushi contract or employee who is also selling gas and cigarettes too. I’d rather entrust that risk management to trained chefs and a staff that know what they are doing.”