"TILAPIA EAT POOP" (really?)


One of the most common searches that lead people to this blog, I kid you not, is “TILAPIA EAT POOP.”

I have eaten tilapia fish gladly, week after week. But I’ve seen this particular search enough times that I began to wonder. Do they? If I eat tilapia, does that mean that I eat poop, too? I decided to do some research, so that I can answer, once and for all, the question that has (inexplicably) been on everyone’s minds:DO TILAPIA REALLY EAT POOP?

First, some tilapia facts: Tilapia are now the fifth-most consumed fish in the U.S. It’s a remarkably “unfishy” fish, and it tends to taste like whatever sauce it’s served with. This mild flavor, combined with its low price point, probably explains why consumers love it, and chefs hate it.

Environmentalists encourage eating tilapia. Oceans Alive ranks U.S. farmed tilapia as an “eco-best” choice, meaning they don’t damage the environment (through pollution of waters, reduction of biodiversity, overharvesting, etc.). So does National Geographic’s Green Guide.

Tilapia are also lower in contaminants than other fish. Growseed says that: “as concerns about mercury contamination in fish increases, pond-raised tilapia are a safe toxin-free food because they do not build up environmental pollutants in their meat. That’s why Co-op America places tilapia squarely on the “safe” list.

But…um…do they actually eat poop?I have googled and googled and googled, in search of answers to this question. It appears to me that the TILAPIA EAT POOP folks were ultimately informed (directly or indirectly) by the Vomit Island episode of the Dirty Jobs television show, on the Discovery Channel. In this episode, tilapia are used to clean the poo that has accumulated in the tanks of hybrid striped bass. Fear not, though: not all farmed tilapia are fed on waste matter. For a little reassurance, check out this guy in Maine.

How about in their natural environment? You won’t find many wild tilapia in your grocery store, but in their natural enviornment, they thrive on wide variety of natural food organisms, including plankton, succulent green leaves, benthic organisms, aquatic invertebrates, larval fish, detritus and decomposing organic matter. The key word there is “detritus,” which includes all kinds of things, including, most likely, fish waste.

So, yes. The answer, to all you TILAPIA EAT POOP Googlers, is “sometimes.” Which maybe should turn me off to eating tilappia, but the more I researched, the more I thought about other things that are fed on disgusting things (like free-range chickens, which eat the bugs out of cow poop; or mushrooms, which feed off decay; or really any kind of food that takes organic fertilizer…including the tomatoes and greenbeans and carrots I myself grew last summer, which were fertilized with composted manure from a nearby horse farm…).

Waste is consumed in order to support new life: that’s what happens in an ecosystem. I’d prefer that any day to ground meat that’s covered in actual poop.

That said, the key to tilapia appears to be finding a quality source. Given that they can thrive in low quality water, you’ll want to be careful about not getting tilapia from a water source that is too low quality. The Monterey Bay Aquarium (experts in this kind of thing) says that farmed tilapia from U.S. should be a first choice; and farmed tilapia from China should be a last choice. Indeed, earlier this year, the FDA rejected a bunch of tilapia (and other seafood) imported from China, due to concerns about recurrent contamination from carcinogens and antibiotics. Kevin Fitsimmons, Professor of Environmental Science at the University of Arizona, disagrees, however, claiming that “the Chinese actually do a pretty good job.” (I’m not sure if Dr. Fitsimmons read this, but I’d be curious about his reaction).

Anyhow, I’ll still eat tilapia, but now, more than ever before, I’d like to know where my tilapia is coming from. Fortunately, country of origin labeling is mandated for fish (though not yet for all foods). Don’t see this labeling on fish in your grocery store? Demand it. It’s required by law.

TILAPIA EAT POOP folks, I hope this is the answer you’ve been looking for.

Next up: a tilapia recipe that takes a basically healthful fish and drowns it in butter (but hey, my kids loved it!).

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32 Responses to "TILAPIA EAT POOP" (really?)

  1. Mir says:

    We loves us some tilapia, here. I happened to find wild-caught on sale at the supermarket last week and I thought it tasted a bit better, but apparently I am just suggestible, as my husband and children said they tasted no difference. Oh well.

    Can’t wait to see your recipe. My go-to tilapia recipes are also probably unhealthful. Whoops.

  2. Kai says:

    OH my! A disclaimer up top not to read this post while eating lunch would have been helpful!! Thank goodness I wasn’t eating fish.

    Looking forward to the recipe. Now that the weather is getting cooler again I’m more inclined to cook.

  3. Erika says:

    thank you for this information <3

  4. greg says:

    I seem to be able to tell when that episode of Dirty Jobs re-runs by watching this post jump to the top of your popular list. Heh.

  5. kam says:

    Yep, I’m here because I watched Dirtiest Jobs last night. Good info.

  6. Hi,

    Just read your article and thought I should offer my reaction. I think you offered a good explanation and correctly cited the Dirty Jobs episode. In nature tilapia do consume detritus which includes all kinds of decaying organic matter. Most of the nutritional value is actually the bacteria and fungus decomposing the organics. As you properly point out this is similar to organic fertilizer.

    A couple of minor points.

    Tilapia were NOT on the list of 5 fishes FDA placed on the China watch list. And actually no shipments were rejected, certain suppliers of the fish were forced to hold shipments in storage until they achieved three consecutive completely clean lab analyses. Even the “contaminated” shipments were considered safe for cunsumption.

    I visited two more farms and processing plants in China last week and will be posting photos at


    The plants are state of the art and have US and European certifications in place. I can assure you that farmed tilapia from China are much safer than virtually any wild caught fish in America.

    Finally, most chefs actually love to work with tilapia as they can show off their skill. It has only been in the last couple of years as the price came down that some chefs have turned up their noses. If you look back at all the publicity a few years ago all chefs raved about the mild flavor and ability to work with its “delicate” taste.

    Great work.

    Dr. Fitz

  7. Okay, I came here on the same basic search – though mine was “what do tilapia eat”. *chuckle* This was after my husband came home last night and when I asked if he wanted me to make him some tilapia for lunch (for today, to take with him) he visibly gagged and said he’s off tilapia for a while since he’d found out they eat fecal matter. He’s not a fan of liver, either.

    Anywho – this actually brought to the forefront a concern I had about the tilapia I have been holding off on cooking for quite some time now. Usually our tilapia purchases are US raised and marketed, but a couple of months back we got a “great deal” on tilapia ($1.99 a pound, which came out to 4 fillets in a bag). However, when I got home and later read the bag to see what to set my oven at – the package was covered with typos and grammatical errors – and the fish was farmed in China. Now mind you, being from China would have set off warning bells anyway due to all the recalls at the time (and now even) BUT on top of the issue were the typos – a multitude of them. And the convenient “John 3:16″ notice on the bag – with no other comment as to why it’s there.

    Add to this that we are a military family, and the “cheap” fish was sold at the military commissary and the conspiracy theorist (normally well suppressed) in me started squawking and couldn’t cook the fish.

    I’m kinda glad my hubby is off tilapia now as it gave me a reason to bring up the issue of those particular fish without sounding like a hideous geek. Your post, especially the China comments – though Dr. Fitzsimmons gives a good rebuttal – reassures me that in this specific case – with these two bags of fish – throwing them out and “wasting” $4 was the better choice.

    Yes, that’s what I did last night. ;-)

    Long story long: my favorite recipe for tilapia is just like making a baked chicken breast – simply grind lemon-pepper into your baking dish, maybe spritz on a little Pam to ease sticking, and then place in the fish or chicken; then grind more lemon-pepper on top and bake (15 min for the fish, 30 for chicken or to temperature of 170 deg. on the breast meat). No butter involved, and still moist enough if you don’t overbake it.

  8. DD says:

    My google was “tilapia dirty” and it still brought me here! Not first result, but definitely the most informative of all. Thank you for your thorough research.

    Unfortunately, my husband WAS partially right about the tilapia being “dirty”. UGH.

  9. Anna says:

    Wouldn’t the “what tilapia eats” also apply to flounder, catfish, shrimp, crab, and other “bottom feeders/dwellers”?

  10. the Mater says:

    Ali, can you answer Anna’s question about the overall eating habits of other bottom dwellers. I don’t get over here all that often and this discussion is really informative. Your ability to do this kind of research and write so well about food in general (plus sharing recipes!) boggles my mind, considering you have children to care for and other community commitments.

    If there were an OSCAR for best food blog, I’d vote for you!

    Keep up the good work.

  11. lynn says:

    a great web site for moms & other folks making tough decisions. i just bught tilapia & have no idea of which country it originates. it’s really challenging these days when we have to rely on professionals who put so much more into the monetary than common human repect & safety. and i felt this way long before i became a mom. nothing is more precious than human lives!!!!!!

  12. lynn says:

    yes, i see my spelling errors! my heart & brain are in the right place even if my spell check isn’t!!

  13. Pingback: No-good soup, no-good tilapia, no-good beef, and quite good sculpture « The Cleaner Plate Club

  14. Bob & Gayle says:

    I love(d) tilapia until I saw the Dirty Job show which really caused me to reconsider. Having grown up in a farming community and also toured the Malorganite(?) factory in Milwaukee where they convert city sewage into relatively odorless sterile lawn fertilizer, I don’t know why I got spooked over tilapia eating fecal waste. Anyway, thanks for your informative answer to the ‘poop’ question. I WILL eat tilapia again and ponder the ‘full circle’ analagy.

    P.S. Did not spell check………..

  15. natalie says:

    my query was “tilapia dirty jobs” because i am trying to determine whether or not tilapia farms could be used in sustainable communities to consume waste…

    thank you for the post! very helpful

  16. Mom says:

    Another reason I’m a vegetarian.

  17. Cella says:

    Thank you soooo much for your research. I love fish and I love eating tilapia because it’s cheap and easier to find. I was born and raised on an island so fish is a necessity that I cannot do without especially living in the rocky mountain area where its hard to find fish period! I was told by a co-worker that indeed they do eat waste which is why I decided to google for facts. I will continue to eat tilapia because you are right, we don’t really know what anyone’s eating anymore. LOL!

  18. frank says:

    but you forget to add farmed raised tilapia out of Ecuador,Costa Rica, Honduras, Brazil,Columbia and even Mexico that is delivered into the U.S. daily..the only stuff coming out of china is Gased Izumidai aka Tilapia out of china that has been smoked with carbon monoxide.. hence the bright red blood line… give me some 2-3 day old stuff out of Ecuador any day…

  19. Ty Watts says:

    Just to clarify something. Tilapia may eat poop but they are not “bottom dwellers” like CatFish. Tilapia are opportunistic omnivours, so if they are hungrey they will bottom feed but in most enivornments they are eating algae and plankton.

  20. Kinky says:

    A friend of mine brought over 2 boxes of Tilapia raised in China. I have been listening and reading the reports of the Tilapia from China and I am very leary about cooking the fish. I still feel lost as to whether is is safe to consume it or not. More insight into this would be helpful.

  21. Viv says:


    Posted on Thu, Jul. 10, 2008

    Tilapia bad for your health?
    By Faye Flam


    Consider the latest food to hit the danger list: farm-raised tilapia.
    Researchers from Wake Forest University Medical Center say you’re better of with a big juicy burger than with this mild, low-fat fish, which turns out to be high in an unhealthful form of fat called long-chain omega-6 fatty acids, especially when it’s produced by fish farms.

    Long chain omega-6 fats promote inflammation associated with heart disease, asthma, some cancers, Alzheimer’s disease, stroke and other conditions, said Floyd Chilton, professor of physiology at Wake Forest and head of the study.

    Is there anything left that the experts say we should eat? Not much, said Chilton, thanks to a large-scale corruption of the American food chain with cheap corn feed. That has altered the composition of fats found in beef, chicken, eggs and farmed fish, such as catfish and tilapia.

    In tests, the researchers found that grain-fed tilapia concentrated even more of the worst fats than did grain-fed beef.

    One animal-based food that Chilton recommends is wild-caught fish, such as salmon and sardines, since they contain inflammation-fighting omega-3 fatty acids. Unfortunately, he said, public health officials have been wrongly telling people to get more of this important nutrient by eating more fish without specifying what kind.

  22. lizer says:

    Something to do with their former use in the septic systems of submarines…just what I heard.

    We’ll probably go back to eating it.

  23. harlan says:

    everyone thinks tilapia is a great fish but it really discustes me about there back round! So for al of you people who love Tilapia good luck to you!

  24. James says:

    Just a note. Farmed raised Tilipia is not on the safe to eat list as you suggest. Only wild Tilipia is “safe to eat”, which is difficult to find.

  25. lee-anne says:

    When the city zoo built a huge new hippo enclosure, they filled the swimming pool with tilapia to keep it clean. Have you ever seen a hippo poop? The tail is like a diffuser that sprays it everywhere. Those fish have gotten BIG and I can’t bring myself to do it. Thanks for the research. Very interesting.

  26. helmi says:

    thanks for informations

  27. kevin says:

    Who uses the term “poop” when discussing something like this? A 12 year old?

  28. Ali says:

    Kevin – apparently thousands and thousands of people do. Last I checked, this post had almost 23,000 views, and most of them come from that very Google search. I know, insane, right?

  29. Zac says:

    By the way, many Zoos use Tilapia in their Hippo habitats to keep the pools clean from Hippo poo…

  30. Frank says:

    well this goes to show that some of you are in the same

    level on the food chain crap eating fish for crap eating people
    or crap eats crap. ha ha ha ha ha ha eat more crap….crap

  31. HandyAndy says:

    The one point you magnaged to glaze over was those poo eating TILAPIA on the dirty jobs episode were filmed on a fish farm and then carted off to a fish market. So buying farm raised TILAPIA you are just as likley to get those brown lipped buggers. For me I will stick to swordfish and yellowtail Thank You Very Much!

  32. Patrick Akers says:

    Andy you may want to consider the mercury levels of your fish of choice.

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