Is Tilapia Really Safe?

Tilapia is an easy-to-prepare and relatively inexpensive fish that many people enjoy eating. However, some reports on tilapia farming practices have led to people worrying about whether or not the fish is safe to eat.

In this article, we answer some of the common concerns regarding the farming, safety, breeding, and nutritional value of tilapia.

What is tilapia?

Tilapia is a mild-flavored, lean fish, which is easy to prepare and relatively inexpensive. In 2016, tilapia was fourth on a list of the seafood species that people in the United States are most likely to consume.

Tilapia fish are very adaptable and can survive even in poor-quality water or overcrowded conditions. They grow quickly, so they are a popular choice for farming. The most popular farmed species is native to the Nile river in Northeast Africa.

What are the concerns about tilapia farming?

There are tilapia farms around the world. The fish does not tolerate cold water, so farming usually takes place in warmer climates. Standards for fish farming vary according to the country and farm.

Tilapia is a very successful fish that can survive in a variety of conditions. This can cause problems if any of the fish escape, as they can become an invasive species. In the U.S., tilapia farming takes place in closed tanks to prevent the fish from escaping.

Raising tilapia in cramped conditions can lead to disease and overcrowding. Tilapia eat algae but can survive on a variety of foods. A good-quality diet and a clean, spacious environment will generally produce a healthier fish.

The Ocean Wise scheme labels fish sources according to their sustainability. This takes into account the long-term survival of the species, its health, environmental pollution, and the impact of fishing on the wider ecosystem.

Examples of non-sustainable sources of tilapia include pond farms in China and Taiwan and open-net pen farms in Colombia.

Sustainable sources of tilapia include:

  • tilapia pond farms in Ecuador
  • blue tilapia raceway farms in Peru
  • Nile tilapia open-net pen farms in Mexico, Honduras, and Indonesia
  • tilapia recirculating aquaculture system (RAS) farms in the U.S.

Is tilapia safe to eat?

When farms rear the tilapia in good conditions, the fish are safe to eat. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) list tilapia as one of the best choices for pregnant or breast-feeding women and children over the age of 2 years. This is due to its low mercury and contaminant content.

Is tilapia genetically engineered?

Selective breeding has led to changes in the genes of most farmed animals and fish over time. The species in farms often look different to those in the wild.

Selective breeding can increase the amount of meat from an animal, or make a species easier to farm. This usually has no adverse effects for people eating the meat or fish.

However, people may want to check food labels for the following terms:

  • genetically modified (GM)
  • genetically engineered (GE)
  • bioengineered (BE)

These terms mean that scientists have altered the DNA of an animal or plant in the laboratory. This is a common way to make plants resistant to disease, pests, or chemicals, such as glyphosate.

The first GE fish that the FDA approved for sale in the U.S. was the AquAdvantage salmon that AquaBounty Technologies produced. This fish grows more quickly than it would in the wild as a result of higher levels of growth hormone. These GE salmon may also have more antibiotics and food dyes in their feed.

After an investigation, the FDA decided that the AquAdvantage salmon was safe to eat and did not pose a threat to the environment, despite many organizations and experts raising concerns. The FDA have not yet approved any GE tilapia, although AquaBounty Technologies are currently developing GE trout, catfish, and other fish, which they intend to sell commercially.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) are creating a new scheme for labeling GM foods. This will make it easier for consumers to know which foods are GM.

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