Salmon, the Frankenfish & the
Truth About the Tuna You Eat
Contrary to the old saying, and paraphrasing it too, the life aquatic is no longer plenty. It’s hard to tell what’s depleting it faster, whether overpopulation or ocean pollution. Short of an unlike miracle, we may be heading to a time when eating fish will no longer be an option.
Which is too bad, of course, but we’re not getting into that now. Because be it as it may, many think there must be another way. Fair enough, but what? Either call tilapia, red snapper, and tuna, escolar. Or please get that salmon loaded with some extra genes.
We’ll skim over these slightly deranged options, and those unstoppable depleting factors in a minute, but let’s agree first that we’re facing a quagmire, here. Our seven billion-strong mouths won’t stop devouring, anytime soon, whatever is closer in order to keep their hosts from collapsing, that’s for sure,
On the other hand, since even before we’ve reached the top of the food chain, we’ve been serving ourselves with everything this planet has bred and nourished way before our great entrance in the concert of species. Thus we turned every other animal into just another dish, and never looked back.
As we colonized flora and fauna to our own sustenance, we grew stronger and multiplied faster. As we’ve occupied every corner of the globe, we’ve also incorporated ever more species into our diet. Until the number of human digestive systems started to shadow the overall number of living organisms used to sustained it.
That delicate balance between what we demand to survive and what’s available to the taking seems about to be tipped. That and, of course, the widening disproportion in the distribution of natural resources, and what’s with the outrage about horse meat, anyway? After all, isn’t that leaner? But that too, is a fish for another water.
So to show how this long and winding intro can manage to land right on top of your dinner plate, let’s see what’s cooking, so to speak, about the seafood we think we’re eating, but that we’re not, and the fish that we thought that we knew, but soon enough we may not recognize.
THE TRUTHNESS OF TUNA
It may have all started with the study conducted by Oceana, an advocate group for the preservation of the world’s oceans. Between 2010 and 2012, it collected and DNA-tested over 1,200 seafood samples in 21 states, to check whether products sold by 674 retail outlets were correctly labeled. Surprise, surprise, many of them, weren’t.
In fact, a staggering 33% of the 1,215 samples analyzed nationwide were mislabeled, according to the FDA, which certified the results. Two of the most popular fish types among U.S. consumers, snapper and tuna, are also the most mislabeled, and in the case of red snapper, for instance, only seven out of 150 samples were actually of the fish.
Even more disturbing were the implications of what passes for white tuna in third of the samples: it’s escolar, a type of mackerel so oily that compares to castor oil, including the number both play in the human tract. The irony of its education name is that some say it should come with a warning, such as eat it only when close to a bathroom. Enough said.
In Manhattan, a small island bursting with exclusive restaurants, the findings were no less shocking: ’39 percent of nearly 150 samples of fresh seafood collected from 81 establishments in the city this summer were mislabeled,’ according to the NYTimes. So much for the $485 sushi special served at you-(don’t)-know-where; it was probably mackerel.
That restaurant owners, chefs and customers are being duped by shady distributors, has become painfully clear. But what’s underlining such a widespread deception and abuse of public faith, is that demand is getting so far ahead of the offer, that many are willing to go to jail to remain in the not too kosher business of food.
FRANKENFISH, OR THE MODERN PROMISE
Having a bout of diarrhea after a meal we thought it was so nice can be terrible, but not as bad as having it, without that delicious meal first, of course. In both cases, there’s a kind of cause-effect that makes the experience predictable, if unpleasant, and with some luck, bearable, if you survive to tell the story.
Another thing entirely is to eat something you’re not too sure about what really is, or is made of. Take fish, for example. Humankind has been eating it for as long as we’ve known we’re around, and salmon is one of those types which evolution has also assigned a nice story to go along with its life cycle.
At the same time, not nearly as old or age-tested is science’s genetic manipulation of species. For since the decoding of many species, including ours, the knowledge about the blocks of life seems to offer at least twice as many new questions as the answers researchers were seeking in the first place.
Actually, never mind genetics. The history of human manipulation of the environment, nature, even psychological behavior, is one of many errors, and only a few, honorable, ‘eureka’ moments. It seems that every time we introduce a new element, in pursuit of a much needed effect, the huge, and unpredictable, disruption it causes winds up overshadowing it.
Which doesn’t necessarily mean that the genetically-altered salmon the FDA is about to approve to unrestricted consumption will ignite the scary scenario that its nickname, Frankenfish, has inspired. The science behind it seems to be sound, and researchers spent many years perfecting the method.
It’s all, as often this sort of thing is, simple, really: the combination of an Atlantic salmon with an added Pacific salmon gene, to make it grow faster, plus and an eel gene, so to be harvested year-round. But behind this pseudo new normality, there’s something, well, fishy.
THE OWNERSHIP OF LIVING BEINGS
The technology of gene recombination has been developed by a private biotech company, AquaBounty, which has already patented a label to go along with what considers its creation, the AquaAdvantage salmon. Since salmon remains as popular in North America as snow once was, the company stands to make a killing.
In a way, AquaBounty is but one company interested in collecting the bounty (read: bundle of cash) that food generates, and its proprietary genetic method equates that of Monsanto and its seeds. In both cases, an overriding debate took over where the morality one was left wanting: that of owning a living organism.
In the case of Monsanto, the first practical, and utterly unacceptable, implication is that it gave itself the right to sue the land where its ‘property,’ the seeds, would land, regardless if they got there blown or taken by the environment and its agents. It is, as we speak, being sued by farmers it accused of illegal possession of its seeds.
And that’s becoming way more scarier than the issue of not knowing what you’re eating, heaven helps us all. For now, conditions are already set for a much uglier debate than whether tuna should be banned from your meal, until its worldwide population recovers, or what they’re calling as such is even tuna, and not something else.
Again, as if peeling an onion, and copiously crying while doing it, there are deeper and deeper layers, and world hunger and the devastation of our natural resources, however crucial they may be to the majority of the population, are not even the bottom line of this discussion.
We could go on about this for a while, and you’re welcome to add here your own regards, but first you may have to excuse us: since a few graphs ago, we’re no longer feeling too hot. Maybe this conversation made us sick. Perhaps talking about food is not our thing. Most likely, it was just something we ate. In any event, we leave you now with a much bigger fish to fry.