A warning circulating via email and Facebook warns of the dangers of eating farm-raised tilapia.
There is an ongoing debate regarding farm-raised tilapia from China.
The current incarnation of the tilapia warning appears to be a re-working of a popular 2011 warning that circulated regarding farm-raised tilapia from China. We’ll take a look at the warning being circulated in July 2013 and then address some of the key points being made. The tilapia claims below are part of a much longer warning regarding products from China. We have only included tilapia portion of the warning:
DO NOT EAT TILAPIA
Greetings and Salutations…
I read several articles on Google about this, and even one that was defending the eating of tilapia said to avoid the fish that came from China. Also, I had just returned home from buying Publix & Albertson’s 4-day special of 4 bags of frozen tilapia for the price of one. Sure enough, on the top of the bags, it read “farm raised”, and on the bottom in small print it said, “China”.
I recently saw a Food inspector on TV… He said he had lived overseas and he had seen the filthy conditions their foods are raised and processed in.
It is enough to make you throw up. Some foreign workers have to wear masks as they work in these places, because the food is so rotten and filthy, it makes them want to throw up. Many of their Fish on Fish Farms are fed Raw sewage daily. He said he has seen so much filth throughout their food growing and processing that he would “never” eat any of it. They raise this filth, put some food coloring and some flavorings on it, then they ship it to the USA for YOU to consume and feed to YOUR families. They have no Food & Safety Inspectors. They ship it to you to buy and poison your families and friends.
Consumption of tilapia has risen sharply in recent years due to their size, taste, and high protein content. They are also economical to farm due to their inexpensive corn-based diet and quick growth rate.
The Rise of Farm-Raised Tilapia from China
Tilapia was once a little known fish to the American consumer. Over the past 20 years, as demand has increased, China’s export of tilapia to the U.S. began increasing as well. China now accounts for about 80% of all frozen tilapia imported into the U.S.
Do Tilapia Eat Sewage?
The warning above claims that tilapia are fed “raw sewage.” Typical farm-raised tilapia are fed corn or soy pellets, but there have been claims that tilapia in some Asian countries are fed – or even grown in – sewage from poultry or pork farms. In the wild, tilapia typically feed on lake plants and algae.
There was a “Dirty Jobs” television episode in which tilapia were used to eat the waste of another farmed fish (striped bass). This was at a U.S.-based farm, however.
A 2009 USDA report noted that fish in China are “often raised in ponds where they feed on waste from poultry and livestock.” It further states, “It is common practice to let livestock and poultry roam freely in fields and to spread livestock and poultry waste on fields or use it as fish feed.”
A 2012 Bloomberg article quotes Yang Shuiquan, chairman of a government-sponsored tilapia aquaculture association, as saying, “Many farmers have switched to feces and have stopped using commercial feed.” The article also states that the “FDA has rejected 820 Chinese seafood shipments since 2007, including 187 that contained tilapia.”
An Israeli news organization went to China to investigate the chemicals added to fish in order to help them retain water, and found STPP (Sodium Tripolyphosphate) being used. This is a compound found in a variety of household cleaning products, and has in recent years gained favor as a preservative and is recognized by the FDA as “generally recognized as safe.” Though some countries limit the amount of STPP found in seafood products, the U.S. does not. You can see their report below.
While this report doesn’t address claims that tilapia are fed raw sewage, it does show a foamy, soapy STPP mixture in which tilapia fillets are soaked prior to freezing.
A Wake Forest University study found that farm-raised tilapia has very low levels of beneficial omega-3 fatty acids and very high levels of undesirable omega-6 fatty acids. This omega-6 to omega-3 ratio is said to be as high as 11:1, which is quite poor. Researchers have said this could be a risk to some patients with heart disease, asthma, and other inflammatory conditions.
It has been pointed out that tilapia has less overall fat than many other fish, so it will naturally be lower in omega-3 as well.
Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch lists tilapia raised in the U.S. and Ecuador as “best choice” with China and Taiwan as a “good alternative” though it used to be rated as something to “avoid.” These ratings appear to based more on environmental concerns rather than nutrition or food safety.
Though there are federal and state food inspection programs are in place to check the quality of imported products, questions regarding farm-raised tilapia from China remain.
There are two sides in this debate, and it is difficult to generalize the hundreds of thousands of tilapia farms in China into a single assertion regarding responsibility and safety, especially when the FDA only inspects about 3% of imported food.
- Tilapia Aquaculture (Miami Aqua-Culture, Inc.)
- Tilapia (Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch)
- Popular Fish, Tilapia, Contains Potentially Dangerous Fatty Acid Combination (Science Daily: July 10, 2008)
- Code of Federal Regulations Title 21 (FDA)
- U.S. tilapia imports, value by selected sources – All Years (PDF) (USDA Economic Research Service)
- Another Side of Tilapia, the Perfect Factory Fish (Elizabeth Rosenthal, The New York Times: May 2, 2011)
- Asian Seafood Raised on Pig Feces Approved for U.S. Consumers (Nguyen Dieu Tu Uyen & William Bi, Bloomberg: October 10, 2012)