Fish can be one of the healthiest foods in our diet providing long-chained essential fatty acids (e.g. DHA, EPA), vitamin D, iodine, important minerals, and more. Unfortunately, seafood is also a source of persistent toxins so we must choose our seafood carefully. But there is yet another problem as well: We are frequently sold seafood that is mislabeled and far too rich
in toxins and bacteria to be a welcomed part of our diet. And this can dramatically impact our ability to make healthy seafood choices.
Americans eat a lot of shrimp; more than we should given that shrimp tends to be richer in toxins than in essential fatty acids. While this is true for all shrimp, farmed imported shrimp — and most shrimp we encounter at restaurants and in the grocery store are farmed in other countries – present huge health problems. These shrimp are usually raised in ponds filled with fecal matter, chemicals, and decaying food. The shrimp end up sick causing the farmer to use antibiotics and other drugs that leave a residue in the shrimp. The shrimp are packed and shipped in ice that is not always (or even typically) as clean as it should be and the general hygiene on foreign shrimp farms is often lacking. As a result, 60% of shrimp tested positive for bacteria in tests run by Consumer Reports. More drug resistant bacteria were found on shrimp than were found in similar studies done on chicken, pork or ground turkey. Heaven knows poultry comes with lots of troublesome bacteria so the fact that shrimp come with more is very bad news.
Sustainability is also an issue. Ecologically important mangroves – wetlands that support biodiversity and absorb significant amounts of greenhouse gases – are cleared for shrimp farms that eventually are abandoned, leaving behind toxic cesspools.
While shrimp destined for the US market are not supposed to be exposed to any antibiotics or banned pesticides, oversight is lacking. The government only tests about 0.7% of shrimp entering the country and this is not enough: Consumer Reports found prohibited antibiotics and pesticides in the shrimp it tested. An FDA sampling also found unapproved drugs in imported shrimp. Despite the higher price for wild shrimp, Consumer Reports concluded that wild shrimp from US waters are worth the extra money but even US shrimp are exposed to toxins resulting from things like the Louisiana oil spill.
The author of Real Food, Fake Food, a book I highly recommend below, says he rarely eats shrimp at restaurants and never orders it at Asian restaurants. He only buys domestic, wild-caught shrimp at fish counters and then only if he has good reason to believe the shrimp actually are what the fish monger claims them to be. His friend, a food fraud specialist, based on the current state of affairs, simply recommends giving up eating shrimp altogether.
A huge amount of fish sold in this country is not what it claims to be. In a New York survey, 58% of stores, 39% of restaurants, and 100% of sushi restaurants sold fake fish. Even in Seattle, one in five fish is not what it claims to be. Less expensive species are frequently substituted for more expensive varieties and farmed fish is often sold as wild, especially at restaurants.
When it comes to, for instance, white tuna on a sushi menu, you have a 94% chance of getting a non-tuna fish. Most often you will instead be served escolar. Not only is escolar much less expensive than the white tuna you ordered (which means you are overpaying), it is also known as the “Ex-lax fish” because it often triggers days of diarrhea and digestive upset.
Grouper is another frequently substituted fish. Most “grouper” is farmed, previously frozen tilapia or, worse yet, ponga, a farmed Asian catfish. Here, just as with shrimp farms, these fish farms adhere to dubious standards at best and have been shown to frequently use unapproved for banned antibiotics and drugs. One indication of how widespread ponga substitution is comes from the data showing it is one of the top 10 fish imports. It is a top import even though few Americans actually shop for ponga and fewer restaurants have it on their menus. Instead, ponga is resold as more expensive, healthier fish such as American catfish, sole, flounder, cod, or grouper.
The award for fish species most frequently adulterated actually goes to red snapper. In our largest fish study, real red snapper was found less than 6% of the time. Experts are unanimous: Never buy red snapper; it is usually either tilefish or farmed tilapia. Tilefish is especially problematic because it is high enough in mercury to be on the do-not-eat FDA list for children and pregnant women so definitely avoid “red snapper” if you are pregnant, breastfeeding, or raising children.
I’ve only covered some of the types of seafood adulteration; I’ve not covered the problems with farmed fish being sold as wild or scallops injected with chemicals. If you would like more information on this, I recommend: Real Food, Fake Food by Larry Olmsted. That book covers all types of food adulterations from Kobe beef to Parmesan cheese to sushi fish to truffle oil and is a very good read.
Photo: “Red Snapper Closeup” by Pen Waggener
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