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Yuck: Our Seafood Is Loaded with Unspeakably Gross Pollutants

Some of our most popular seafood treats come to us from filthy operations in other countries.
 
 
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Photo Credit: © AJP/Shutterstock.com

 
 
 
 

This article was published in partnership with  GlobalPossibilities.org.

When you tuck into a delicious seafood dish, is it possible that the fish you are eating once ate human poop? Surprisingly, that might be the case. A look at the U.S. seafood supply reveals that some of our most popular seafood treats might come to us from unsanitary and disgusting operations in other countries. And the federal government does not necessarily stop it from making its way to your dinner plate, either.

These days, 91 percent of U.S. seafood is imported, and half of that is farmed (the other half is wild-caught). Our top suppliers include China, Thailand, Canada, Chile, Indonesia, Ecuador, and Vietnam. And the production systems some of these countries use would make your stomach turn.

Michael Doyle, regents professor and director at the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia, described tilapia production in China, saying, “The farmers there grow the fish in ponds that are maybe one to two acres in size. That's their livelihood. And they use excessive antibiotics.” China is a leading supplier of tilapia to the U.S.

“It's not just antibiotic residues on the seafood. It's also antibiotic-resistant microbes that come with the fish or the shrimp,” he continued. “A primary source of salmonella is the raw manure that is used to feed the shrimp and fish. Many of these farmers have poultry -- maybe chickens, maybe geese, maybe ducks. The fecal waste of these animals is fed directly into these ponds, which is the source of nutrients for these fish and shrimp… Poultry can harbor salmonella... that's shed in the feces. And many of these little farms have the family outhouse just feed directly into the ponds."

If that makes you less interested in ordering the tilapia, then you surely don’t want any Vietnamese “catfish” either. U.S. aquaculture produces channel catfish, but these days, American producers compete with a flood of cheap Vietnamese fish that are marketed as catfish. Dr. Carole Engle, chair and director of aquaculture and fisheries at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, says these Vietnamese catfish are “not only a different species, it's a different genus and a different family. We call it pangasius.”

To understand pangasius farming in Vietnam, one must first know a little bit about life in the Mekong Delta. Engle explains, “What's striking when you first get there is that there's more water than there is land in the Mekong Delta region. There are these large rivers coming through the Mekong Delta… These waters are everything. A lot of the transportation is on the water, and a lot of people live on the water, on houseboats. It's also a disposal system. People live on these rivers and their restrooms are right on these boats and they are discharging right on the rivers. And all the human waste, and all of the waste from cities… it's all going into the river and the river is the source of the water.”

That water is where the fish are raised. “A lot of the fish are raised in cages directly in rivers,” says Engle, but “more and more the pangasius are raised in what the Vietnamese call ponds.” But the ponds are nothing like U.S. aquaculture ponds that are closed systems using clean water. The Vietnamese ponds are regularly flushed with polluted river water. "Upstream a factory or a houseboat might have discharged something into it, and all that human waste is flowing through these ponds because they are flushing it through a few times a day," Engle explains.

 
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