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!).