What's on the seafood menu today?
In addition to the omega-3 proteins we seek, there is an array of unsavory and unintentional side dishes that could come with sea creatures: heavy metals, salmonella and banned pesticides or hormones. Since the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, food safety experts have focused on the danger of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons — PAHs — in seafood from that area. And there is guilt: Eating some fish contributes to the problem of overfishing endangered species, while eating others could harm fragile ecosystems or cultures in other ways.
To help consumers make choices that are environmentally friendly and healthy, the advocacy group Food and Water Watch on Wednesday published the National Smart Seafood Guide 2010 that weighs nutritional and environmental considerations for eating 100 types of seafood — and may help take some of the anxiety out of choosing a fish dish.
"The guide comes at a critical time. We've been fielding countless questions from consumers on seafood safety after the Gulf oil spill," said Marianne Cufone, Food & Water Watch's fish program director. "Unfortunately, because of the spill, many people are considering imported seafood as a safer alternative to domestic. Often, it's not."
Indeed, Food and Water Watch named imported coastal farmed shrimp the worst of the worst on its "Dirty Dozen" list of seafood products that it says fail health and sustainability measures. Imported shrimp, much of it farmed in Asia, may be tainted with "antibiotic, pesticide or bacterial residues" that are not allowed in better-regulated markets.
Also on the guide's buyer-beware list are caviar from sturgeon that are endangered by poaching, overfishing, river damming and pollution; shark and Chilean seabass because of a tendency to have high mercury levels; and Atlantic and farmed salmon, because they introduce hazards to natural salmon populations.
As for the safety of seafood from the Gulf of Mexico, the guide says to keep watching for Food and Drug Administration updates amid ongoing testing. But Gulf coast commercial fishermen will likely be grateful for the perspective the guide offers on seafood safety. As they are quick to point out, their seafood — about 2 percent of the total in the U.S. market — is getting far more attention than imported seafood products. There are at least three federal agencies and a gaggle of state agencies and other health groups examining Gulf seafood and waters, and most are giving the products a clean bill of health.
"We are so much more scrutinized right now than any other food or fish coming into this country," said Ewell Smith, executive director of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board. His organization is scrambling to protect the reputation of Gulf fisheries products since the broken Deepwater Horizon dumped millions of gallons of oil into the water. "In spite of all these fears that are in place, there haven't been any illnesses."