Is Farmed Fish Safe?

One of the things people are concerned with most when it comes to farmed seafood is whether it is safe to eat. The most common misconception for farmed seafoods is that they are unsafe to eat and not as appetizing as wild seafood.

However, the Center for Diseases Control (CDC) reported 26,000 foodborne illness outbreaks in the United States from 2009 to 2015. 26% and 37% were related to land animals and plants, respectively, while only 9% of all the 26,000 foodborne outbreaks were related to seafood. This reveals that seafood is one of the safest food commodities that are readily available to us.

Food safety in aquaculture is about controlling three types of risks which are chemical, biological and contaminant (GAA, 2019). These food safety hazards mean the food contains biological or chemical agents and may cause adverse health effects.

Chemical risks come from medical residues (such as antibiotics) or improper use of chemicals that remain in the seafood during farming. It may also come from the industrial chemical contamination (including heavy metals and pesticides) of the selected aquaculture sites. People may have the misconception of aquaculture that farmed fish is full of antibiotics. However, the reality is that with the success of vaccines, antibiotics are rarely used now. Other diseases can be prevented by following good management practices, which are a part of the animal health and welfare component of Best Aquaculture Practice’s (BAP) standards. The BAP is the only third-party aquaculture certification program that encompasses the entire production chain, including the processing plant, farm, hatchery, and feed mill. BAP standards also prohibit the use of any banned antibiotics and heightened testing is required when they are detected.

Biological risks have to do with microbial sanitation, hygiene at the farming level, as well as at harvest and during transport. Regarding the misconception that fish are farmed in dirty water and crowded conditions through aquaculture practices, there are a few things to note. First, even when space is open and available fish naturally live in tightly packed schools or shoals. Second, murky water does not always equate to being dirty. In some instances it can be considered normal/healthy for fish that prefer shallow, tropical habitats. Contamination to food is a threat to all food production fields, not solely aquaculture. Both this concept and water quality are addressed within the BAP standards.

Similar to all food production there are potential food safety hazards of seafood. However, there are methods, techniques, equipment, and more to control them effectively. Certifications like BAP and Global GAP require third-party food safety testing of aquaculture products before awarding their certification (GAA, 2019). The implementation of Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points (HACCP) guidelines, administered by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), continues to make seafood consumption even safer (GAA, 2019). These methods work on each step of the seafood production chain to ensure the safety issues are actively being addressed. Therefore, consumers can be confident to buy farmed seafood with BAP certification labeled on the packaging. Because of its nature and strict legal and regulatory mechanisms, farmed-raised seafood is consistent in appearance, texture, price, quality and ease of preparation – notably, the wild-caught products lack these options.

Regarding nutrition aspects, different species of seafood contain differing nutrition qualities. Wild seafood consumes a natural diet, while farmed seafood is fed a specifically formulated, high nutrient fish feed. Typically, wild salmon is higher in minerals, including potassium, zinc and iron, whereas farmed salmon have more omega-3 fatty acids and significantly more omega-6. All in all, both the farmed seafood and wild seafood are very nutritious for most consumers.

It is a common comment to hear that farmed seafood does not taste as good as wild seafood. However, the taste is truly a matter of personal preference for many people prefer the taste of farmed seafood. The Washington Post published an article covering a blind tasting test of farm-raised salmon versus wild-caught salmon in 2013. In this test, there were five fish for each type (being farmed and wild). When the tasting concluded the panelist ordered their personal preference with the first five panels being all farmed seafood. There was a clear winner from the trial – farmed salmon. Nonetheless, some will prefer the taste of wild fish while many will prefer the taste of farmed. Thus, it may not be appropriate to generalize that wild seafood tastes better than farmed seafood.