Crunching Down Tilapia

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I like to eat most fish. However, I draw the line at tilapia. Yes, I know that it’s popular. It’s a type of fresh water perch (like the popular Blue Gill game fish) that grows quickly and is very hardy. Usually they are farmed in the tropics since they thrive in warmer climates.
According to the National Fisheries Institute, the mild fish has climbed to become the fourth most eaten seafood in the U.S., behind only shrimp, salmon and canned tuna. They’re easy to farm and they are inexpensive to buy.

I recently went out to dinner and everyone at the table ordered tilapia except me. They challenged me and I kept silent, suggesting that my ribeye (cooked to perfection over burning mesquite) was simply a choice in the face of the “healthier option”. I usually avoid dinner table gross-outs. So it’s going up here on the blog instead. Crunch those tilapia down with gusto after you’ve read my experiences — I dare you.

Mexican Farmed Tilapia
Farmed Tilapia – feeding (source: Google)
While working in Mexico I found that some Beltran Leyva Cartel types were feeding people they killed to farmed tilapia in the Puerto Vallerta area to hide the bodies. Other disturbing reports indicated that the Arellano-Felix Cartel people were doing it in Northern Mexico as well to get rid of their rivals. Apparently tilapia enjoy the meal and grow even more rapidly with the steady supply of protein.  
Most of these fish find their way to tables in Mexico and to tourist destinations along the Mexican Riviera, so buying and eating them in the US is likely cartel-influence free. Personally I’ve been put off on eating them.

Santiago “El Pozolero” (The soup maker) Meza Lopez became famous for the “El pozole” (Mexican meat soup), that he made of dead people, killed by the Arellano-Felix Family and later for the Sinaloa Cartel.
“El Pozolero” became famous because he was in charge of getting rid of the bodies of the war that was being fought in Tijuana over the drug routes towards the United States. Some of those bodies ended up being dissolved in caustic chemicals. Others made their way to the tilapia ponds because caustic chemicals cost money and the cartel owned tilapia ponds and could solve two problems at once.
I’m not suggesting that all Mexican tilapia are farmed using bodies of dead people as food. I’m not suggesting that even a small percentage of the tilapia raised in Mexico are farmed in that way. I’m simply saying that I refuse to eat ANY tilapia and that’s why.
Chinese Farmed Talapia
A 2009 study conducted by the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture cited some alarming facts about Chinese farm-raised seafood that did not specifically cite Talapia. Researchers noted that “many of China’s farms and food processors are situated in heavily industrialized regions where water, air and soil are contaminated by industrial effluents and vehicle exhaust.” The report also stated that it “is common practice to let livestock and poultry roam freely in fields and to spread livestock and poultry waste on fields or use it as fish feed.” After the study was released, news organizations, including Bloomberg and, reported the rampant use of animal feces as food in Chinese aquaculture – specifically calling out the practice on tilapia farms.

But if it is, the next question is: How much farm-raised tilapia are we eating from China? The answer is: A lot.

A Good Choice? – You Decide

According to Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch, over 95 percent of tilapia consumed in the U.S. in 2013 came from overseas, and 73 percent of those imports came from China. One reason is that the fish thrives in a subtropical climate, making it a difficult fish to farm in most of the U.S.
In 2006, Seafood Watch listed farmed Chinese tilapia as “Avoid.” Senior science manager Wendy Norden and science analyst Brian Albaum at Seafood Watch told that the recommendation was due to poor food quality enforcement and high levels of chemicals, antibacterial drugs (nitrofurans) and malachite green (used to dye silk, leather and paper) in fish samples.

They said that the “Avoid” rating at that time was not due to what the fish were fed, although they did note that “in aquaculture, usually wastes from one animal are unfit to be fed to other animals.”
Today, Seafood Watch gives farmed tilapia from China a “Good Alternative” rating, due to improved enforcement of food legislation. But it cautions that the fish currently tests in the “red zone” for the presence of banned or illegal chemicals such as antibiotics, malachite green and methyl testosterone hormones used in Chinese tilapia production.
Caveat Emptor – Let the buyer beware.

22 thoughts on “Crunching Down Tilapia

  1. I have been aware of the problems with Chinese fish (and other food products) for some time but the information about Mexican Soylent Tilapia is new. And disturbing. But the possibilities for salient recipe names are exciting.
    Tilapia au Manuel
    Tilapia pro Gringo
    Chicken of the Cemetery
    Cartel Casserole

  2. You've probably seen this, but the MB Seafood Watch website keeps a current guide that folds into a small wallet card. You print off the one relevant to where you live, and keep it on you so that you've got an easy reference at the store/restaurant. That way you don't have to try to remember which fish from which sea are sustainably gathered, which are toxic, etc. I can never keep it all straight.

  3. Damn! And I like Tilapia, too. But no more. And I posted this on my Facebook page for others to see and make their own decisions. Steak, please. And I am not so sure about shrimp, either.

  4. My husband and I refer to Talapia as 'turd fish' because they are bottom feeders and excrement is their food of choice as well as rotting flesh.

  5. There are 29,707 people missing and presumed dead in Mexico over the past two years. ( Not all of them were fed to tilapia. Some were buried, others were fed to sharks, or dissolved in caustic chemicals.

    I'm not certain that all of the human viruses that cartel members had were destroyed when they 'cycled' through the fish. Maybe somebody who knows more about the biology of that could comment.

  6. The fish that you catch in a clear, running stream (trout) or pelagic fish (deep ocean) are likely to be about as pure as you're going to find on the planet. Farmed fish from the Third World, including catfish not raised in the US, are suspect to me.

  7. Sustainability in some fish contexts means that you (in essence) eat cycled Chinese excrement. I don't think that's a secret. Some people don't educate themselves but they enjoy the fish – and for them, maybe that's ok. I'm with you on avoiding anything that feeds on "turds or rotting flesh".

  8. I won't eat ANY farmed fish…I have that on good authority from my friends at the Health department. Tilapia and Cat fish are the worst. However, the heavy metals in tuna have me limiting that intake too. But I guess if you enjoy it you gotta die from something.

  9. Anonymous, (who I know, but who remains anonymous) does indeed have friends in the health department. This only underscores my concern, and I'm sure that your health department contact doesn't test for Soylent Tilapia.

    We all have to die sometime. If it's not a virus being spread by tilapia, it will be a chicken bone in the throat or a tomahawk to the spine. To quote Tommy Lee Jones (MIB): "There's always an Arquillian Battle Cruiser, or a Corillian Death Ray, or an intergalactic plague that is about to wipe out all life on this miserable little planet, and the only way these people can get on with their happy lives is that they Do… Not… Know about it!" — the problem with tilapia is that I know about it.

  10. You've got to catch fish to eat fish around here, and we all know how well that's working.
    Good information, thanks!

  11. If you're going to the store to find a prize that Dad caught, steer clear of types you wouldn't want to eat…

  12. Yes, but people order them and scarf them down without ever thinking that they're "eating them with fava beans and some fine chainty…"

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