Monday, January 21, 2013

Buying Seafood

A few years ago I wrote a piece on the fraudulent mislabeling of seafood, and how it was endangering people's health.  What dropped my jaw recently, is the idea that even when we know which species we're buying, we may still be buying substances that could make us sick.

Reportedly, 86% of America's seafood is imported, half of which is  raised on factory farms.  89% of these farm factory imports come from Asian countries.  This would be fine, except for the fact that much of what's being imported from these don't meet American health standards.  Unfortunately, the FDA's testing procedures haven't caught up to the times, which still require testing of only 2% of seafood imports per year.

Below are just a few frightening examples of what's coming through customs, according to a (10/23/12) article from The Business Insider.
  • Tilapia in China's fish farms, are fed pig and goose manure — even though it contains salmonella and makes the Tilapia "more susceptible to disease." 
  • In Vietnam, farmed shrimp bound for the US market are kept fresh with heaps of ice made from tap water that teems with pathogenic bacteria.  
  • Bloomberg also notes that at the same company "there’s trash on the floor, and flies crawl over baskets of processed shrimp stacked in an unchilled room." 
  • In May, ABC News bought 30 samples of imported farmed shrimp from across the country and had them tested for antibiotic traces. The result: Three of the samples contained detectable levels of antibiotics unapproved for use in the US. 
  • According to a recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a quarter of the food-borne illness outbreaks caused by imported food from 2005 to 2010 involved seafood — more than any other food commodity.
So, what can you do to protect yourself and your family?  The best thing you can do is to eat seafood from clean sustainable sources.  In a nutshell, fish & shellfish harvested from clean sustainable sources will be healthier when alive, thus will be healthier for us when we consume them.

Then the question becomes, how does a buyer know which seafood is sustainable?  Well, there are a few ways.  Like I said a few years ago, find a grocer you trust.  I can't stress this enough.  Any TV commercial can make any store chain seem like part of your family, but do your research.

Has your store made a public commitment to  using only sustainable seafood the way Costco, Safeway, & Whole Foods have?  If not, does your store at least promote sustainable seafood by clearly labeling your choices with a color code such as the following seafood quality & sustainability key, used by The Blue Ocean Institute?
Seafood Quality & Sustainability Key:

MercuryThese fish contain levels of mercury or PCBs that may pose a health risk to adults and children. Please refer to for more details.

RedSpecies has a combination of problems such as overfishing, high by catch, and poor management; or farming methods have serious environmental impacts.

YellowSome problems exist with this species' status or catch/farming methods, or information is insufficient for evaluating.

GreenSpecies is relatively abundant, and fishing/farming methods cause little damage to habitat and other wildlife.

CertifiedA fishery targeting this species has been certified as sustainable and well managed to the Marine Stewardship Council's environmental standard. Learn more at
labeled seafoodMy favorite specialty grocer labels their seafood with a similar color-based system (I think they combined the green and blue categories into a single green category).  Yes, occasionally they sell seafood from the unsustainable red category, but those few items are always labeled with a BIG RED DANGER CARD, so buyers know exactly what they're getting and where it's coming from.

My general discount grocer doesn't use such a system.  Thus, I've been known to buy my freezables, potato chips, V8, etc..., at my general discount grocer a stop by my favorite specialty grocer to pick up wild Alaskan Coho Salmon filets for that night's dinner.  Yes, the fish costs more, sometimes 4 times more, that way.  However, buying seafood at such conscientious stores gives me the peace of mind which comes with knowing what I'm buying & putting into my body.

Now, if reality requires you to do all your shopping at a general discount grocer, where low price is THE bottom line, there are still some things you can do to arm yourself. Greenpeace published this 52 page pdf ranking the top 20 national grocers based on the strength and responsible implementation of their seafood policy.

On page 7, I was surprised to find Safeway ranked, above Whole Foods, as #1.  I was also surprised to see Trader Joe's, Costco (even with their aforementioned pledge), and Kroger (locally Fred Meyer's) ranked relatively low while Target, of all places, was ranked 5th.

 Of course, these rankings tell shoppers nothing about local chains such as WinCo, Albertsons, etc... If you find Safeway to be on the spendy side, and you frequent a local grocer, you can still prepare to make an informed purchase.   Many environmental watch dog groups, such as Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch, publish and distribute free seafood sustainability charts, like the one below, to consumers and restauranteurs.


Abalone (U.S. Farmed)

Arctic Char (U.S., Canada, Norway, Iceland; Farmed in Recirculating Systems)

Barramundi (U.S. Farmed in Fully Recirculating Systems)

Capelin (Iceland, Wild-caught)

Catfish (U.S. Farmed)

Clams (Worldwide, Farmed)

Clams, Softshell/Steamers (U.S. Atlantic, Wild-caught)

Cobia (U.S. Farmed)

Cod, Atlantic (Hook-and-line from Iceland and Northeast Arctic (by Norway, Russia))

Cod, Pacific (U.S. Bottom Longline, Jig and Trap)

Crab, Dungeness (California, Oregon and Washington, Trap)

Crab, Kona (Australia, Wild-caught)

Crab, Stone (U.S. Atlantic, U.S. Gulf of Mexico, Trap)

Crawfish/Crayfish (U.S. Farmed)

Croaker, Atlantic (U.S. Non-trawl)

Barramundi (Australia, Farmed in Fully Recirculating Systems)

Basa (Imported, Farmed)

Black Drum (Trotline from U.S. Gulf of Mexico)

Black Sea Bass (U.S. Mid-Atlantic, Wild-caught)

Bluefish (U.S. Atlantic, Wild-caught)

Bluenose (Southern Pacific, Wild-caught)

Capelin (Canada, Wild-caught)

Caviar, Sturgeon (U.S. Farmed)

Clams, Atlantic Surf (U.S. Atlantic, Wild-caught)

Clams, Hard (U.S. Atlantic, Wild-caught)

Clams, Ocean Quahog (U.S. Atlantic, Wild-caught)

Cod, Atlantic (Bottom Gillnet, Bottom Longline, Bottom Trawl & Danish Seine from Iceland & Northeast Arctic)

Cod, Atlantic (Hook & line from U.S. Gulf of Maine)

Barramundi (Imported, Farmed in Open Systems)

Caviar, Paddlefish (U.S. Wild-caught)

Caviar, Sturgeon (Imported, Wild-caught)

Chilean Seabass (Southern Ocean, Wild-caught)

Cobia (Imported, Farmed)

Cod, Atlantic (Trawl-caught from Canadian and U.S. Atlantic)

Cod, Pacific (Imported, Wild-caught)

Conch, Queen (Worldwide, Wild-caught)

Corvina, Gulf (Gulf of California, Wild-caught)

Crab, King (Russia, Trap)

Crawfish/Crayfish (Imported, Farmed)

Dab, Common (Danish Seine from Iceland)

Dogfish, Spiny (Wild-caught from Canadian Atlantic and U.S.)

Eel, Freshwater (Worldwide, Farmed)

These columns are longer than what is shown here, but you can download a COMPLETE printable PDF version of the Seafood Buyer's Guide from Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch.

Even stores that don't label health & sustainability  levels, must, by law, label the species and source (Tuna, Skipjack [Worldwide, Troll/Pole]).  Therefore, once you have your printed copy, it's perfectly fine to take it shopping to remind yourself which products are from healthy sustainable sources by matching the species and source from the product in the counter tot the appropriate column on the chart.   Assuming they label their products honestly, you should be able to make a healthy well informed purchase.


  1. Nice article, thanks for the information.
    Anna @ sewa mobil jakarta

  2. Excellent resource! My personal Motto with fish, especially growing up in a fishing community is ALWAYS buy wild caught from local fisheries. Support Local fisheries.

  3. Thanks for this information. It did a great job for sea food members.

    BioTech Patent Attorney