Observation: Concerns over the safety of eating beluga and other sea mammals have been expressed recently by some subsistence hunters based on a number of articles published in the CBC, Nome Nugget and other media sources. The concern is related to the finding of the cat parasite Toxoplasma gondii in beluga whales. The finding in beluga is new information, but not a new threat as Toxoplasma gondii has been know to occur in Alaska wildlife for years. For healthy people, toxo does not pose much of a risk. However, people with weakened immune systems or pregnant moms should take special care with their food to prevent illnesses like toxo. Adequately freezing or cooking sea mammal will make the food safe.
LEO says: The following inquiry by Kristi Frankson of Point Hope and resulting consultation by Dr. James Berner of ANTHC are provided with their permission to help address some of the questions and concerns on this topic.
Hi. My name is Kristi Frankson and I read an article about the beluga whales having a parasite typically found in cat feces. I was wondering if someone could tell me the temperature at which this parasite is killed. Traditionally, we used to hang the meat out to dry here in Point Hope, and due to many reasons, jobs, no time, ravens and sea gulls, etc., some people have taken to drying their meat in the oven overnight. I was wondering if heating the oven for a period of time would be enough to kill that parasite so that we wouldn’t have to be worried about it. I would rather be on the safe side, if you know what I mean. Can you give me info. or tell me where to look for answers? Thanks very much. Kristi Frankson
Kristi: The toxoplasma parasite lives in muscle, like the parasite that causes trichinosis. Toxo can easily be killed by heating the meat to around 150-160 degrees for at least ten minutes. Toxo, can also be killed by freezing at a temperature of -4 degrees for 48 hours.
It is true that most healthy adults do not get symptoms when they are infected with the toxo organism, however, anyone who has a weakened immune system can get very sick, with a wide-spread toxo infection. This includes a person who is being treated for cancer, a person who takes steroid medication, such as prednisone for asthma or COPD, a person being treated for certain types of arthritis, a pregnant woman who has never been exposed to toxo, a person with diabetes, elders, people with AIDS, and infants.
This can result in severe damage to eyes, brain, and other organs, and can even result in death. That doesn't happen often, but the people in those categories are particularly vulnerable, and should have any sea mammal meat at least frozen before consuming it uncooked.
Exposure to toxo, does not affect the quality appearance, taste or nutritional value of sea mammal meat. Sea mammal is far more nutritious than any store-bought meat, so you should continue to eat it when you have it. Just be aware of the vulnerable residents who may be better off eating it cooked, or having it frozen, before eating it smoked or dried. J Berner, MD, LEO