Tilapia, the third most consumed fish in America, is under fire. Increasingly, this fish is grown in China and bad farming practices, some experts argue, are causing the food to suffer nutritionally (some have even called the fish as "bad for you as bacon") But industry and watchdog leaders are now changing those practices, working hard to make this easy-to-raise fish safer and healthier to eat. Here's what you need to know to find a sustainable, nutritious fillet of one of the most popular fish in the U.S.
Bad as Bacon
The comparison to bacon first came from a Wake Forest study that revealed tilapia raised on farms in China and Central America — which accounts for most of the tilapia we get — has very high levels of omega-6 fatty acids and negligible omega-3s, thanks to their diets. Unlike omega-3s, which tame inflammation and promote heart and brain health, omega-6s may increase inflammation, but only when they're consumed in excess of omega-3s. In other words, omega-6s themselves aren't bad for you. But when your fatty acid ratio falls out of whack, "omega-6s are converted to pro-inflammatory messengers that orchestrate diabetes, stroke, heart disease, arthritis, and even Alzheimer's," says Floyd Chilton, director of the Wake Forest Center for Botanical Lipids and Inflammatory Disease Prevention.
Therefore, Chilton insists lean, protein-rich tilapia shouldn't be branded "unhealthy" just because it's high in omega-6s. Choosing this fish isn't necessarily a bad thing, but if you're eating fish mainly to reap the benefits of omega-3s, you can do a lot better than tilapia. "The big winners are salmon, mackerel, albacore tuna, and trout, which give you more than a gram of omega-3s per 3 ounces," Chilton says. "With tilapia, it would be extraordinarily tough to get the amount of omega-3s necessary for optimal health."
The Problems with Farming
The bigger problem with tilapia is where and how this fish is frequently farmed. It's nearly impossible to find U.S.-bred tilapia fillets because our colder climate requires these tropical fish to be grown in expensive indoor tanks, says Michael Rubino, director of the NOAA Fisheries Aquaculture Program. Almost all of the frozen fillets sold in grocery stores and served at restaurants come from China, while most fresh tilapia fillets come from Central America.
Although there are some highly reputable global producers that grow healthy fish in an environmentally sound fashion — namely the world's largest producer, Regal Springs — there are many farmers, especially in Asia, that do not. Many foreign producers in under-regulated nations have been found to raise diseased tilapia in too-tight quarters, pumping fish full of antibiotics, clearing forests to make room for on-shore tanks, and even feeding fish feces. Such measures not only yield poor-quality fish but can cause major damage to the surrounding land and water.
But how much of these practices are actually going on? "There's never smoke without a fire, so some of the negative press about tilapia farming is certainly true," says Magdalena Wallhoff, global sales director at Regal Springs, which grows fish in floating pens in deep lakes in Honduras, Mexico, and Indonesia. "In China the stocking density can be extreme; fish are grown in muddy ponds and farmers don't buy high-quality feed because it costs too much."
Improvements in Aquaculture
Even though these issues persist, Wallhoff, Rubino, and many other stakeholders agree that, by and large, tilapia farming is improving worldwide — even in China. Several factors have prompted the industry to clean up its act. For one, experts have increasingly realized that aquaculture is crucial for global food security and that, if done properly, it can carry a very low environmental impact. This has spawned many advancements in aquaculture systems.
Additionally, more consumers today want to know where their fish comes from, which has prompted more retailers and other buyers to tighten up their quality standards and demand traceability from their suppliers. This in turn has given foreign farmers more incentive to meet those standards, even when their nations' governments aren't mandating them. "The demand for China-grown fish has skyrocketed so much that to meet it, more farming operations now use dedicated ponds, higher-performance feeds, and aeration to achieve much higher production," says George Chamberlain, president of the Global Aquaculture Alliance.
To ensure that we receive safe, healthy tilapia that's also been farmed responsibly, there are now more checks and balances in place that go far beyond the Food and Drug Administration's spot-testing of tilapia shipments for traces of unapproved antibiotics and environmental toxins. The U.S. government–run NOAA Fisheries Office of Aquaculture inspects foreign fish-processing plants for safety and sanitation at the request of either U.S. buyers or the producers. Global Aquaculture Alliance, a nonprofit trade organization, certifies operations that follow strict ecological standards.
Finding the Best fillets
Perhaps the most significant change agent in the world of fish farming has been the World Wildlife Fund. Roughly a decade ago, WWF brought together NGOs, key producers like Regal Springs, and other stakeholders to set super-strict standards for tilapia farming worldwide. This effort spawned the Aquaculture Stewardship Council, which since 2011 has been auditing and certifying tilapia farms that make the grade for production standards and environmental and social impacts. This differs from other certifiers, which mostly audit fish-processing facilities, not the actual farms, says Aaron McNevin, director of aquaculture at WWF.
McNevin says that currently, only about 15 percent of the tilapia available in the U.S. carries the ASC seal — the best indicator of safe, responsibly raised fish. China remains the major sticking point to getting more operations and products certified. "The key problem in China is there are so many small-scale farmers," he says. "That makes it challenging to trace every product back to a farm. And if there's not traceability, there's no accountability, so what's to stop a farmer from using a chemical or doing something that wouldn't normally be accepted for the U.S. market? That said, there are some really, really good tilapia producers in China as well."
For that reason, rather than avoiding all China-bred tilapia, McNevin suggests choosing for fish with the ASC seal, "If you're shopping and you don't see any tilapia with the ASC label, ask for it, and shop somewhere else until the retailer brings in products bearing the label," McNevin says. "Then you create demand, which will create change."