Seafood is and always will be slightly mysterious. Unlike sheep, cows and other fluffy but delicious animals, the creatures of the deep can sometimes seem more alien than edible. No one can look at an octopus without concluding that seafood is fundamentally weird. Given this, it’s hardly surprising that our imagination occasionally gets the better of us. Even today, with all the advantages of science and hundreds of years of natural history, we still find it hard not to be scared of our underwater friends.
Now, the internet has found itself in the grip of a fishy fever, after the appearance of a graphic claiming to reveal “the truth” about the edible African species tilapia. The image includes some scary statistics about the cichlid, which has been the fourth most consumed fish in the United States since 2002. The warnings ranged from the belief that “this fish is boneless, has no skin and can’t be overcooked,” to the assertion that “you can’t find tilapia in the wild. It’s being harvest (sic) in artificial fish farms.”
The graphic goes on to state that “eating tilapia is worse than eating bacon or a hamburger,” and that “dioxin is found in this fish. Cancers are caused by this toxin Dioxin, which can take up to 11 years to clear your body of it (sic) once consumed.” The image concludes with an instruction to “please share this with others” and a warning that “this fish is a mutant and killing our families.” It’s been seen by thousands around the world.
In addition to the terrible grammar, the substance of this tilapia horror story sounds like scary stuff. Every year, over four million tonnes of the fish are harvested for human consumption around the world. If these facts are to be believed, families all over the planet could be unwittingly chowing down on some seriously dangerous seafood. However, as with almost everything on the internet, the reality is significantly more complicated than society being inadvertently poisoned by an evil fish.
The story starts long before the internet was a byword for fake news. Tilapia has been eaten around the world for thousands of years, with recipes dating all the way back to Ancient Egypt. A native of East African rivers and estuaries such as the Nile, generations of diners have been enjoying wild tilapia with no ill consequences. Our current confusion has only arisen as a result of the widespread introduction of industrial fish farming.
Part of what has helped make tilapia one of the most widely eaten fish on the planet is its extraordinary adaptability, resilience and rapid growth. Unlike many other sought-after species, tilapia can thrive in commercial captivity, even in conditions that might seem unsustainable to the untrained eye. This makes them an extremely popular, cheap option for anyone interested in getting into fish farming. As a result, the commercially raised tilapia harvest is almost eight times the yield compared to wild-caught animals.
Tilapia’s success as a farmed fish stock might make business sense, but it is also the source of their controversial status. The fish’s ability to survive being densely packed and its very limited dietary requirements have raised suspicions all over the world, with many questioning how a fish raised in such circumstances can possibly make for a healthy meal. It is from these suspicions that the rumours about the “truth” of tilapia have spiralled out of control.
A key issue pointed to by tilapia sceptics comes from foreign farmed imports. In 2009, a report from the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) highlighted several safety concerns about animal products originating from China, explicitly mentioning the country’s tilapia policy where “fish are often raised in ponds where they feed on waste from poultry and livestock.”
Numerous other studies and reports noted that feeding fish animal excrement was potentially hazardous to American consumers, due to the elevated risk of foodborne diseases such as salmonella. Given that China is the world’s largest producer of commercially raised tilapia, with an annual yield of about 1.3 million tonnes, it’s understandable that the idea of their fish eating poo was cause for concern.
However, while the initial worry over what we have been feeding one of our favourite fish was partly justified, the hysteria that has followed is demonstrably not. Not only do Chinese tilapia represent only a portion of the market, but it’s also impossible to issue a blanket statement about the state of all Chinese farmed fish based on a few findings.
In 2012, The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch programme, one of the most respected resources for sustainable seafood in America, issued its own report on farmed tilapia from China, upgrading its previous “Avoid” recommendation to a “Good Alternative,” suggesting that any concerns over the efficacy of Chinese tilapia have been over exaggerated. This is just one example of how individual problems in the production line can tarnish the reputation of an entire species.
In fact, some scientists believe that it is precisely because tilapia can thrive on a food source as dubious as manure that they are a relatively healthy alternative. Unlike carnivorous fish such as salmon or cod, tilapia subsist on foods such as algae and plant matter. This means that they accrue much lower levels of poisonous mercury in their flesh, as well as contain low levels of saturated fat, calories, carbohydrates and sodium.
Though there are certainly legitimate concerns over some of the processes involved in commercial tilapia production - a diet comprised solely of animal waste can indeed cause problems for the fish - this doesn’t mean, as the viral meme tried to claim, that the fish is a mutant.
If you pull back the curtain behind any industrialised food, you’ll probably find something to make your stomach turn. However, it’s quite a stretch to go from unappetising to pure evil. If this story proves anything, it’s that the "truth” about tilapia, as with any decent seafood, should be taken with quite a substantial pinch of salt.