Hoaxes & Rumors

Is Farm-Raised Tilapia from China Dangerous?

Is Farm-Raised Tilapia from China Dangerous?

A warning circulating via email and Facebook warns of the dangers of eating farm-raised tilapia from China.

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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 regarding farm-raised tilapia from China. We’ll take a look at the warning and then address some of the key points. The tilapia claims below are part of a much longer warning regarding products from China. We have only included tilapia portion of the warning:

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 its size, taste, and high protein content. It is also economical to farm due to its inexpensive corn-based diet and quick growth rate. It is now considered the fourth-most eaten seafood on the United States.

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. In 2010, Americans consumed about 475 million pounds of tilapia, a four-fold increase over the 10-year period.

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.” The report did not specify tilapia. In its 2014 report on tilapia, Fox News quoted FDA spokeswoman Theresa Eisenman as stating that she was “not aware of evidence to support the claim that this practice is occurring.” When pressed on the issue by MSN News, Eisenman asserted that if the FDA “had information that an aquaculture product was raised in a manner that would violate FDA’s food safety requirements, that product would not be allowed entry into the United States.”

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.”

Michael Doyle, director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia, was quoted in a 2013 MSN article on the topic. He estimated that “roughly 50 percent” of Chinese tilapia were raised on animal feces. Doyle pointed out that this practice would make them more susceptible to such infections as E.coli and salmonella. The large amount of antibiotics given to these fish to fight those infections is in turn contributing to “multiple antibiotic-resistant strains of salmonella coming in with these fish.”


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. In recent years it has gained favor as a preservative, and is described by the FDA as “generally recognized as safe.” Although 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.

Fatty Acids and Tilapia

A Wake Forest University study found that farm-raised tilapia contains very low levels of beneficial omega-3 fatty acids while possessing 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.

In his assessment of tilapia and the Wake Forest study, Dr. Andrew Weil suggested avoiding tilapia and instead eating “better choices” such as Wild Alaskan salmon.

How much tilapia comes from China?

A recent report by Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch found that over 95 percent of all tilapia consumed in the United States was imported in 2013. Of that number, 73 percent came from China.

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Seafood Watch

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” although it used to be rated as something to “avoid.” These ratings appear to based more on environmental concerns rather than nutrition or food safety.

2014 FDA Import Alert

In an April 2014 “Import Alert,” the FDA noted that China’s use of “unapproved antibiotics or chemicals in aquaculture raises significant public health concerns.” While not specifically mentioning tilapia, the warning notes that the “presence of antibiotic residues may contribute to an increase of antimicrobial resistance in human pathogens. Moreover, prolonged exposure to nitrofurans, malachite green, and gentian violet has been shown to have a carcinogenic affect.”

Bottom Line

Although there are federal and state food inspection programs 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.

Despite questions about its fat content and accusations of sewage-fed farming techniques in China, tilapia is expected to rise in popularity due to its mild flavor and competitive price.

Purchasing tilapia farmed in the U.S. or Ecuador will avoid many of the concerns about Chinese farming practices, although some experts have suggested that choosing a “better” fish may be your best option due to tilapia’s omega-6 to omega-3 ratio.


Updated August 10, 2014
Originally published July 2013

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