For the Sake of Your Health
Americans eat billions of pounds of seafood every year.
Billions of pounds means people are making a lot of choices about what seafood to eat, not all of them good.
Seafood is one of the major foods linked to foodborne illness. And it’s not just things like bacteria that could make eating seafood a concern, but also the drugs or other chemicals used to produce some farmed fish. The growing share of imported seafood that we consume is of particular concern because much of it comes from industrial-scale fish farms. Less than 2 percent of seafood imports to the U.S. are inspected for contamination. And the crowded, unsanitary conditions on many industrial fish farms breed bacteria, viruses and parasites, forcing producers to use antibiotics and chemicals to prevent disease outbreaks.
What Questions to Ask About Your Seafood
We evaluated more than 100 types of fish and shellfish to create the only guide assessing not only the health and environmental effects of eating certain seafood, but also the impacts on coastal and fishing communities. Our guide recommends safer, more sustainable options based on your personal tastes and priorities. Print out the card version, which can fit in your wallet, to keep these valuable tips on hand while shopping or eating out.
When you shop or order fish, here are some key questions to ask:
- Where is it from?
- Is it wild-caught or farmed-raised?
- How was it caught?
- How was it farmed?
The Dirty Dozen
The species on this list get a big thumbs down for failing to meet two or more of our criteria for safer and more sustainable seafood. For instance, imported farmed shrimp is linked to potential contamination, environmentally problematic farming methods and negative socio-economic implications for coastal communities. Open-water farmed salmon is also raises concerns in each of these categories. Bluefin tuna, a wild-caught species, raises major red flags in two areas: the status of the stock is very low due to international overfishing and it is associated with high levels of mercury contamination.
Try to avoid:
- Atlantic cod
- Atlantic flatfish (Atlantic halibut, flounder and sole)
- Caviar (especially from beluga and other wild-caught sturgeon)
- Chilean seabass
- Farmed salmon (often called “Atlantic salmon”)
- Imported basa/swai/tra (often labeled “catfish”)
- Imported farmed shrimp
- Imported king crab
- Orange roughy
- Atlantic Bluefin tuna
5 Factors to Consider
5 Things to Consider When Ordering Seafood
1. Local fish are few and far between: While diners often look forward to ordering seafood, much of the fish at restaurants is not local. Always ask rather than assume that seafood is local and sustainable, even if you are at a restaurant near the water.
2. “Atlantic” salmon is farmed salmon: While Alaskan wild-caught salmon can be a healthy, sustainable option, farmed salmon is associated with environmental and social problems. One red flag is salmon labeled as “Atlantic.” As wild Atlantic salmon populations have been driven close to extinction, salmon from this ocean are almost surely farmed.
3. “Organic” seafood is not what it seems: There are no official standards for organic seafood in the U.S., so fish labeled “organic” are imported, usually from northern Europe. Also keep in mind that seafood labeled as organic is farmed, not wild-caught.
4. Beware of imported shrimp: Although the U.S. has many healthy shrimp fisheries that support coastal communities, about 90 percent of the shrimp consumed in the United States is imported. Much of it comes from farms that are associated with heavy chemical use, environmental destruction and negative impacts for local communities.
5. Bivalve shellfish are often good options: In some cases, bivalve shellfish, like mussels, oysters and clams, are the most likely seafood items at restaurants or markets to be sustainably sourced. These fish are filter feeders, which means that even when farmed they can help to improve local environments by cleaning up water. Just remember to ask about local contaminant warnings, and in the case of clams, whether they are hand-raked or dredged.
There are so many different types of seafood labels — and many don’t tell you very much at all. Can you tell the difference between “sustainable” and “eco-friendly”? Probably not.
Unfortunately, there is not a lot of consistency in how these terms and labels are used. The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) label, for example, is supposed to ensure that seafood is sustainably managed. In reality, many of the fisheries it has approved are associated with significant environmental problems.
Meanwhile, organic labels on seafood in the United States don’t mean much because the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) doesn’t have organic standards for seafood yet. Unlike other foods that have the organic label, seafood labeled as “organic” does not have to meet a set of standards set by the U.S. government.
In 2005, the USDA developed mandatory country of origin labeling rules intended to inform consumers about where their seafood comes from and if it is farm-raised or wild-caught. However, over 50% of fish products sold in the United States is exempt from labeling requirements — anything that is defined as “processed”, including cooked, smoked, canned, or mixed seafood, does not have to be labeled. Excluding processed seafood is particularly troubling because this category of seafood has a high risk of contamination.
Ultimately, asking questions of the people selling seafood is the most reliable way to learn about what you are eating.