In Defense of Tilapia

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Tilapia might be the fish that people most love to hate. But hormones and industrial feed are only part of the story—and if you're careful, there can be a lot to love.

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Tilapia is the fish everybody loves to hate. Chefs hate it because it doesn't taste like fish. Locavores deride it because it's farmed in large, industrial pens and fed industrial soy meal. Nutritionistas shun it because it lacks the abundant omega-3 fatty acids with which they've come to associate fish.

But American consumers who eat fish love it. It has gone from unknown in the U.S. in the mid-1990s to the fifth most popular seafood we eat, after shrimp, canned tuna, salmon, and pollock (think fish sticks). The collapse of the Northeast cod fishery in the early 1990s created a massive gap in the supply of "whitefish," which farmed tilapia and wild pollock were quick to fill.

Guidelines are not a substitute for asking tough questions and holding seafood suppliers to high standards, especially for companies that have to identify large supplies months in advance.

Tilapia's popularity is due to many things—its affordability, mild flavor, and ubiquity. That ubiquity comes at a price, however. Elizabeth Rosenthal's May 2 story in The New York Times, "Another Side of Tilapia, the Perfect Factory Fish," spotlighted the damage that many intensive tilapia farms are doing to local ecosystems, especially in China, where the Seafood Watch rating dropped from a "good alternative" to "avoid" four years ago. China produces 89 percent of the 475 million pounds of tilapia that Americans consumed last year, Rosenthal reports.

Yet tilapia is no different than any other "crop." It can be raised responsibly and irresponsibly—including in China.

When Seafood Watch changed its rating on tilapia from yellow to red for the Chinese-grown tilapia, I remember uttering a word I can't publish and wondering what to do next. I can take or leave tilapia myself, but millions of college meals depend on an affordable supply of a fish that college students will actually eat. Because the more than 400 cafes run by the company I work for, Bon Appétit, are committed to following the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch guidelines, I couldn't ignore the change in status. Lots of our tilapia came from China.

We had a choice. We could source "green"-rated tilapia from Latin America, which was mostly delivered "fresh" by air freight, contradicting one of our core sustainability principles (because emissions of air shipping are 10 times worse than shipping frozen products), or try to encourage the development of a role model in China. Our supplier, a European company that owns farms in China, wanted to keep our business. So with the supplier's cooperation, we asked independent scientific advisers to evaluate their tilapia farms.

The evaluator reviewed our supplier's documentation and went to see the operations in China firsthand. There, he verified their claims and suggested some improvements they have since implemented. Unlike many new farming operations, our supplier has sited pens in water channels where the tilapia cannot escape and over-run native species, collects and disposes of fish waste properly to maintain stringent water-quality standards, and never administers antibiotics or hormones. (Among the disturbing facts in Rosenthal's piece was that baby tilapia are routinely fed testosterone.) And in the end, Seafood Watch agreed that this producer's operations met the criteria for a "good alternative," despite its countrywide "red" listing for Chinese tilapia.

Bon Appétit believes strongly that it is better for a large purchaser like us to help drive change and reward good producers than just to cherry-pick from the top producers. Seeking out a large supply of sustainable seafood is neither a simple endeavor nor a static one. The science-based recommendations offered by Seafood Watch and Blue Ocean Institute are an important starting point for us and for individual consumers, because they represent a snapshot of current knowledge about a moving target (just like the fish themselves). But they are not a substitute for asking tough questions and holding seafood suppliers to high standards, especially for companies that have to identify large supplies months in advance, rather than simply choose dinner off a restaurant menu.

Rosenthal also raised questions about the nutritional benefits of farmed tilapia. It's worth noting that while tilapia raised on grain-based feed may be less healthy than wild marine fish, tilapia is not an inherently "unhealthy" food—especially when compared to other grain-fed protein sources such as beef or pork. As Alice H. Lichtenstein, a professor of nutrition science and policy at Tufts University, pointed out in a response to Rosenthal's article:

The advantages of eating fish are many; unfortunately, fish consumption in the U.S., especially if you exclude breaded deep-fried fish, is extremely low. Fish offers heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids and is low in calories and saturated fat. Tilapia happens to be lower in fat than some other fish, so it has less of all types of fatty acids. Tilapia is, however, more affordable than most other fish in the market today. Splitting hairs over whether one fish has less omega-3 fatty acids per serving than other types of fish when the total fat content is low seems to miss the point. Let's get people eating more fish, and then worry about fine-tuning either the fish's diet or our diet to edge up the omega-3 content.

I couldn't agree more. There's no arguing that fish such as sardines and wild salmon have nutritional qualities that are considered superior, but not everyone will eat "fishy" fish. (Most Americans, it seems, won't.) Bon Appétit serves 120 million meals a year. We have to please a lot of palates, so we offer a variety of protein choices that introduce new options to consumers who otherwise might opt for burgers and fries at every meal. So when tilapia is farmed responsibly, we all win.

Image: clayirving/flickr

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Helene York is the director of strategic initiatives for Bon-Appetit Management, an onsite restaurant company based in Palo Alto, California.

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