A rare parasite that is usually found near the Mexican coast has been discovered in an imported box of fish in Suffolk.
The cymothoa exigua – known as the ‘tongue-eating louse’ – found their way to the UK inside bodies of sea bream that arrived at the Port of Felixstowe.
The parasitic isopods have something of a creepy reputation because they infect a fish and sever the blood vessels in its tongue, which causes it to fall off.
The creatures then attach themselves to the remaining stub – effectively becoming the fish’s new tongue.
Experts believe the parasites are not harmful to humans unless picked up alive, in which case they can bite.
The Suffolk Coastal Port Health Authority (SCPHA), which provides essential health checks on food and animal-related imports, made the grim discovery inside a box before it was moved on – and sent it back to its country of origin.
They realised something was wrong with the import, which was intended for human consumption, when its importer failed to complete the required paperwork.
A routine health check discovered the parasites, which were dead, and resulted in the box being rejected.
Danut Cazacu, a vet at SCPHA, said: “Investigations are carried out at our discretion, so when we detect something is wrong, we can have more of the consignment unloaded for further examination.
“After checking more cartons, it was apparent that most of the sea bream were infested, so we denied the consignment’s entry into the UK.
“From there the importer can choose to have it destroyed or sent back to them, and in this case they chose the latter.”
He added: “Cases such as these are clear reminders of why we work hard to investigate imports and ensure they’re safe for human consumption.
“Many goods pass our health checks without presenting risks, but we sometimes receive unacceptable consignments and must be ready for anything.”
Cymothoa exigua is normally found near the Gulf of California. It has rarely been discovered in the UK but in 2013 Tesco customer Rick Beattie discovered one in a sea bass he had bought for his dinner.
Speaking at the time, he said: “It was like something from a horror film.”
East Suffolk Council and SCPHA check over 80,000 consignments every year to ensure imports are fit for human consumption.