Oh Poo, Is Tilapia Good for You?

I often wonder, is seafood safe to eat anymore? Out there in our waterways floats a vast stew of toxins, the worst offenders being heavy metals and chemicals from industrial pollution, not to mention dangerous amounts of radioactive isotopes from Fukushima-like disasters. Unlike soil, whatever gets dumped into the oceans spreads far and wide, only to be taken up by the organisms that live there. The conventional (current) wisdom is that the lower down in the food chain a fish species is, the less likely it’s accumulated enough toxins to trouble the health of humankind. And that’s the fine point, isn’t it? Because all seafood has some level of contamination. It boils down to a matter of statistics, what the probability is that something as large as tuna or small as sardines that you’re about to pop into your mouth will do you long-term harm. If you don’t want to be consumed or paralyzed by fear and worry, you just have to take your chances, unfortunately. Or do without.

Image from wikipedia

As appalling as the presence of poisons in our oceans is, within the past few years, journalistic exposés have uncovered human activity that is in a way even worse simply because it’s deliberate—the aquaculture of tilapia, which has become the dominant, if not sole white fish (no pun intended) to appear on restaurant menus. You fancy fish tacos? How about sweet-and-sour fish or Szechwan fish fillets? Pescado a la Veracruzana? Odds are, it’s tilapia. Diners like tilapia’s mild flavor and restauranteurs are happy about its low cost. Moreover, they are easy to raise on fish farms. To meet soaring demand, farms throughout the world, especially in Latin America, China and southeast Asia, have proliferated. There will be no foreseeable tilapia shortage.

Therein lies the problem, particularly the tilapia sourced from China and southeast Asia.

Back in 2011, the only issues raised by The New York Times were farm-raised tilapia’s questionable heart-healthy benefits (very little omega-3 and very high levels of omega-6 fatty acids) and ecologically troublesome waste pollution at fish farms. Yet, a year later, Bloomberg News reported that the tilapia raised in unregulated farms in China, the world’s largest producer, are being fed raw animal sewage or manure, though this practice has been known for years.

Yang Shuiquan, chairman of a government-sponsored tilapia aquaculture association in Lianjiang, 200 kilometers from Yangjiang, says he discourages using feces as food because it contaminates water and makes fish more susceptible to diseases. He says a growing number of Guangdong farmers adopt that practice anyway because of fierce competition.

“Many farmers have switched to feces and have stopped using commercial feed,” he says.

Do all farms in Asia practice this? No. I’m sure that many fish farmers have ethical standards.

In the wild, tilapia naturally feeds on algae and aquatic plants. It appears they thrive on poop, too. Because they aren’t carnivores, they’re touted as harboring very low levels of heavy metals. But, by feeding them fecal matter from farm animals, that “advantage” has been turned on its head so that consumers are exposed to pathogens like salmonella and E. coli instead. Won’t the FDA keep our food safe? Good luck with that. Would cooking the fish to high enough temperatures be enough to destroy these bacteria? Maybe. You’d be right to assume that in order to keep illness and infection in check, antibiotics, some of them carcinogenic, are heavily used.

To be objective, isn’t large-scale food production safety in general a problem? Yes, but the practices noted above emotionally are more revolting, nauseating even. Buyer beware! I’ve had my share of tilapia lately, but in protest, not anymore.

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