Scombrotoxic Fish Poisoning And The Role Of Histamine

Scombrotoxic fish poisoning is highly unpleasant and comes from eating fish in the Scombridae family contaminated with a wide range of bacteria. The actual cause of the food poisoning is an accumulation of toxins in the flesh of the fish. The types of fish affected are mackerel, tuna, mahimahi, sardine and bluefish. The subject is well reviewed by Taylor (1986) and in all good food safety management books (Eley, 2012).

Fish which have not been refrigerated properly can often be prone to spoilage. We might smell the issue before we consume the fish but in some cases, the toxins left behind by bacteria living in the flesh cause major food poisoning issues. These toxins are thought to be responsible for about 65% of all food poisoning cases associated with fish according to reports on incidences reported in England and Wales. The onset period for illness is between ten minutes and three hours which is often a good indicator that a toxin and not the actual bacteria is at fault.

Symptoms last for up to eight hours and include headaches, nausea if not vomiting, abdominal pains and in some cases cramps, a rash on the side of the face and neck, strange sensation of heat like a pepper or burning in the mouth, sweating and diarrhoea.

Causes Of Scombrotic Fish Poisoning

The cause of the scombrotoxic fish poisoning is the conversion of an amino acid histidine which is usually found in dark-fleshed fish to histamine. The spoilage organisms at fault are Morganella spp., Hafnia spp. and Klebsiella spp.

To cause the symptoms of histamine poisoning, levels of the chemical above 50ppm are needed in those fish that are consumed and these levels can be reached even before there is any recognizable spoilage. These levels have come down from the 200ppm often cited and widely reported.

You can imagine why it is an issue in seemingly fresh fish badly stored. The problems often occur in canned fish because the toxin is heat resistant and is not destroyed during any heat processing. Storage of fish through monitored temperature refrigeration at 4°C is the best policy to avoid bacterial growth and minimise toxin production.

It is thought about 50 cases occur nationally. In the years from 1992 to 2000, there were reported 78 outbreaks with 40 sporadic cases that involved 341 people. No outbreaks were reported from 2001 to 2002 in the United Kingdom. These cases were confirmed by an analysis of histamine at levels of 5mg or greater in 100g of fish flesh. The fish involved included raw and canned tuna, canned sardines, smoked, soused and canned mackerel and other canned products. Cooked fish included pilchards, salmon, anchovies and herring.

Analysis Of Histamine

Measurement and analysis of histamine levels in fish is a necessary food control measure and included in HACCP plans. A wide range of  determination methods have been reported for the analysis of histamine, including thin-layer chromatography (Lieber & Taylor, 1978; Shakila et al., 2001; Lapa-Guimarães & Pickova, 2004; ), gas chromatography (Hwang et al., 2003), colorimetric assay (Hardy & Smith, 1976; Kawabata et al., 1960), fluorometric assay (AOAC, 2002), enzyme based assays (Lopez-Sabater et al., 1994), immunological assay (Serrar et al., 1995) and high-performance liquid chromatography (Jensen & Marley, 1995; Jeyashakila et al., 2001; Sato et al., 1995; Yen & Hsieh, 1991).

One method is so sensitive as to detect just a few molecules in fish and is based on Surface Enhanced Raman Spectroscopy (SERS) using a simple and widely available silver colloid SERS substrate. Extraction of histamine with 0.4 M perchloric acid and purification with 1-butanol significantly shortened sample preparation (30 min) times (Janči et al., 2017).

General Reference

Eley, A. (2012) Food Poisoning In: Hygiene For Management. Edt. R.A. Sprenger. Highfield Co.UK Ltd. pp. 29-51

Taylor, S. L. (1986). Histamine food poisoning: toxicology and clinical aspects. Critical Reviews in Toxicology. 17(2), pp. 91-128.


AOAC. (2002). Official methods of analysis of AOAC International (17th ed.). Maryland, USA: AOAC International.

Hardy, R., & Smith, J. G. M. (1976). The storage of mackerel (Scomber scombrus). Development of histamine and rancidity. J. Sci. Food Agric., 27, pp. 595-599.

Hwang, B. S., Wang, J. T., & Choong, Y. M. (2003). A rapid gas chromatographic method for the determination of histamine in fish and fish products. Food Chemistry, 82(2), pp. 329-334

Janči, T., Valinger, D., Kljusurić, J. G., Mikac, L., Vidaček, S., & Ivanda, M. (2017). Determination of histamine in fish by Surface Enhanced Raman Spectroscopy using silver colloid SERS substrates. Food Chemistry224, pp. 48–54

Jensen, T. B., & Marley, P. D. (1995). Development of an assay for histamine using automated high-performance liquid chromatography with electrochemical detection. Journal of Chromatography B: Biomedical Sciences and Applications, 670(2), pp. 199-207.

Jeyashakila, R., Vasundhara, T. S., & Kumudavally, K. V. (2001). A comparison of TLC densitometry and HPLC method for the determination of biogenic amines in fish and fishery products. Food Chemistry, 75, pp. 255-259

Lapa-Guimarães, J., & Pickova, J. (2004). New solvent systems for thin-layer chromatographic determination of nine biogenic amines in fish and squid. Journal of Chromatography A, 1045(1-2), pp. 223-232

Lieber, E. R., & Taylor, S. L. (1978). Thin-layer chromatographic screening methods for histamine in tuna fish. Journal of Chromatography A, 153(1), pp. 143-152

Lopez-Sabater, E. I., Rodriguez-Jerez, J. J., Roig-Sagues, A. X., & Mora-Ventura, M. A. T. (1994). Bacteriological quality of tuna fish (Thunnus thynnus) distined for  canning: Effect of tuna handling on presence of histidine decarboxylase bacteria and histamine level. Journal of Food Protection, 57, pp. 318-323.

Sato, M., Tao, Z. H., Shiozaki, K., Nakano, T., Yamaguchi, T., Kumagai, T., et al. (2006). A simple and rapid method for fish histamine analysis of seafoods by paper electrophoresis. Fisheries Science, 72(4), 889e892.

Sato, M., Nakano, T., Takeuchi, M., Kumagai, T., Kanno, N., Nagahisa, E., et al. (1995). Specific determination of histamine in fish by high-performance liquid chromatography after diazo coupling. Japan Society for Bioscience, Biotechnology, and Agrochemistry, 59(7), pp. 1208-1210

Serrar, D., Brebant, R., Bruneau, S., & Denoyel, G. A. (1995). The development of a monoclonal antibody-based ELISA for the determination of histamine in food: application to fishery products and comparison with the HPLC assay. Food Chemistry, 54, pp. 85-91.

Shakila, R. J., Vasundhara, T. S., & Kumudavally, K. V. (2001). A comparison of the TLC-densitometry and HPLC method for the determination of biogenic amines in fish and fishery products. Food Chemistry, 75(2), 255e259.


p align=”LEFT”>Yen, G. C., & Hsieh, C. L. (1991). Simultaneous analysis of biogenic amines in canned fish by HPLC. Journal of Food Science, 56(1), pp. 158-160.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply