Food News: Seafood's Dirty Dozen, and More

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Seafood's Dirty Dozen

Seafood guides tend to focus either on species that should be avoided for reasons related to environmental health (overfishing) or species that should be avoided for reasons related to human health (their flesh is contaminated with chemicals). Food and Water Watch, an environmental group based in Washington, D. C., publishes a useful guide that takes both concerns into account.

My favorite feature is the annual "Dirty Dozen" list, a rogues' gallery of species that fail on at least two counts. This year's do-not-eat roster includes:

    • Imported catfish—may be contaminated with bacteria and drug residues
    • Caviar from wild-caught sturgeon—the fish are endangered
    • Atlantic cod—collapsed stocks and fishing gear that results in high catches of unintended species
    • American eel—high concentration of toxins
    • Atlantic flounder, sole, and halibut—overfishing
    • Imported king crab—from Russian waters, where it is overfished
    • Imported shrimp—from countries with lax regulations
    • Farmed salmon—PCBs, pesticides, antibiotics; farmed in an environmentally harmful manner
    • Chilean seabass—high mercury levels, much of it illegally caught
    • Shark—high mercury levels (also overfished, though FWW doesn't mention this)
    • Atlantic bluefin tuna—very high PCB and mercury levels; endangered

Chemical Agriculture Is Making Farm Women Sick

Women who live on farms are dramatically more likely to develop thyroid disease if certain common pesticides are applied to their land, according to a study by Whitney Goldner of the University of Nebraska that was published recently in the American Journal of Epidemiology.

Goldner and her cohorts studied more than 16,000 women living on farms in Iowa and North Carolina, where the owner was licensed to apply pesticides. She found that 12.5 percent of those women developed thyroid disease, versus 1 to 8 percent of the general population. "Certain insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides have been previously reported to be endocrine disrupters, which can interfere with the endocrine hormone system," she told Radio Iowa. "They may have a bigger role than we've given them credit for and we need to explore this further."

There's Gotta Be a Catch(share)

Wherever they have been implemented, so called "catch-share" management programs—which essentially give each fisherman an ownership stake of his quota of the legal catch instead of setting a fleet-wide annual limit—have proven good for fishermen, the fish they catch, and those of us who consume seafood. Catch-share systems have been shown to reduce the decline in fish populations in all areas of the world. So it was good news late last month when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) approved a catch-share plan (PDF) for bottom-dwelling species caught off the Pacific Coast.

The old laws promoted what the industry calls "derby" fishing, where captains would race out to try to catch as much as possible as quickly as possible, regardless of weather or market conditions. The method was also wasteful, encouraging sloppy practices that led to large rates of bycatch (unintended and unmarketable species) and harvests that exceeded the legal limit. In a catch-share system, each fisherman is assured a certain amount of the catch. He can fish when and where he chooses. For consumers, it means a steady supply of local fresh fish, rather than a glut of seafood that has to be frozen or trucked to distant markets.

"Catch shares can stop the race for fishermen to get out on the water and catch as many fish as fast as they can," Will Stelle, a NOAA administer, said in a statement. "Under a catch-share system, fishermen can better plan their season, reduce overfishing and bycatch, and fish during safer weather.

"And if a fisherman wants to attend his daughter's wedding, he can do so."

GMO Salmon: Coming to a Fish Counter Near You

One of the scariest places I've ever been was a building housing a dozen aquariums on bucolic Prince Edward Island, where a Massachusetts company called AquaBounty Technologies is raising salmon genetically engineered to grow twice as fast as normal salmon. Now, thanks to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), I might not have to go so far to dine on a GMO animal. Last week, the government's experts assured the country that AquaBounty salmon is perfectly safe to eat and poses little risk to the environment. Hearings are scheduled for later this month for what would be the first GMO animal approved by the FDA.

I would feel a lot more comfortable about the FDA's assurances if the agency was not the same outfit that is supposed to be looking after the safety of our egg supply. Perhaps the government scientists should figure out what went wrong there before introducing what potentially may be a whole new set of problems to our food.

Presented by

Barry Estabrook is a former contributing editor at Gourmet magazine. He is the author of the recently released Tomatoland, a book about industrial tomato agriculture. He blogs at politicsoftheplate.com. More

Barry Estabrook was formerly a contributing editor at Gourmet magazine. Stints working on a dairy farm and commercial fishing boat as a young man convinced him that writing about how food was produced was a lot easier than actually producing it. He is the author of the recently released Tomatoland, a book about industrial tomato agriculture. He lives on a 30-acre tract in Vermont, where he gardens and tends a dozen laying hens, and his work also appears at politicsoftheplate.com.

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