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Sunday, May 22, 2011

Dissent from the seafood sector: Tilapia aquaculture

The article repeated below and two letters were published in About Seafood. The environmental and nutritional aspects of tilapia farming have come under much scrutiny lately. Much of the research on the environmental aspects of the tilapia business has been conducted in Nicaragua, where tilapia farming occurs using cages in natural lakes. Now that the New York Times has added its voice to the issue, the debate has intensified. As can be expected, the seafood industry spokespeople may defend the tilapia farming business vigorously, although as is noted in the response letter by the New York Times editorial staff below, the arguments given by the tilapia farming business proponents were anticipated and had been dealt with in the original article.

Farmed tilapia is nutritionally inferior to most wild-caught fish, and the tilapia farming business standards, especially in farms outside the US, create huge environmental damage. The article below does not successfully contest either fact. Consumers have a right to know, and unfortunately, the fish farming industry is not prepared to inform the consumers. The article below demonstrates that some sectors of the seafood industry are not ready to talk clearly to the consumers.

Times Misses the Boat with Tilapia Tale

From a past encounter with the New York Times, one that ended with a correction from the Times and a rebuke by the paper’s ombudsman, we know that the Old Grey Lady ain’t what she used to be. But I’m not sure she’s changed for the better.
Recently we brought some salient points up about the failure of the Times to abide by its own journalistic standards when producing its most recent report on fish—this time tilapia. And we heard back from an editor who, where’re not sure actually read our letter. Keep in mind her response is that she believes all of our points were “well represented” after when we just spent 700 words outline the clear, demonstrable lack of representation found in the article.
The dismissive, blind defense of the Times editorial process is one perhaps Jayson Blair himself would be proud of. Watch this space for more on our interaction with the Times and feel free to read our letter below and the editor’s response.
May 2, 2011
Jill Abramson
Managing Editor
New York Times
VIA Email
Dear Ms. Abramson,
We would like to bring to your attention several breaches in journalism standards contained in an article today by Elisabeth Rosenthal [Another Side of Tilapia, the Perfect Factory Fish].
In paragraph #7, Ms. Rosenthal claims tilapia “contains a less healthful mix of fatty acids because the fish are fed corn and soy instead of lake plants and algae, the diet of wild tilapia.”  Ms. Rosenthal was made aware by NFI dietitian, Jennifer McGuire, MS, RD, that the American Heart Association (AHA) “concludes that omega-6 fatty acids – found in some vegetable oils, nuts and seeds – are a beneficial part of a heart-healthy eating plan.”  She ignored both Ms. McGuire’s and AHA’s expertise.
In paragraph #8, Rosenthal cites Dr. Floyd Chilton, a professor of physiology and pharmacology at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, as a source that claims tilapia “may be detrimental.” Ms. Rosenthal was made aware by me and Ms. McGuire that Dr. Chilton’s public statements about the healthfulness of tilapia have in the past led to reports that bacon, hamburgers, and doughnuts are a better choice than certain fish and his communications on this issue have been rebuked by the medical community as potentially damaging to public health
In response to confusing media reports about Chilton’s perspective in 2008, an international coalition of more than a dozen doctors spoke out to clarify that fish like tilapia are low in total and saturated fat, high in protein and clearly part of a healthy diet.  In explaining the specifics of different types of fat, the researchers note (consistent with AHA) that omega-6s are not only found in fish like tilapia, but vegetable oils, nuts, whole-wheat bread and chicken. The coalition, that even included another expert from Wake Forest University itself, said unequivocally that while lean fish are not rich in omega-3 fatty acids, fish like catfish and tilapia, “should be considered better choices than most other meat alternatives” and, in addition to eating oily fish, “our omega-3 needs can also be met by eating less-oily (lower-fat) fish more often.”  Ms. Rosenthal simply uses Dr. Chilton as an “expert” and ignores his past transgressions in the media that a long list of credible health organizations and independent researchers have spoken out against.
In paragraphs 10 and 11 Ms. Rosenthal explains the inspection and certification efforts of the WWF’s Aquaculture Stewardship Council. She also mentions the appeal of certified aquaculture facilities to “large corporate customers like Costco.” She describes the program’s “growing popularity.” But she omits facts the National Fisheries Institute brought to her attention that inspection and certification has been ongoing for years and the World’s largest retailer Wal Mart and the country’s largest grocer Kroger both already only carry aquaculture products that are certified by the Global Aquaculture Alliance.
Readers are given the impression that aquaculture certification is a new and growing trend. While it is growing, it’s been around for years and major companies have long endorsed it.  The WWF’s Aquaculture Stewardship Council may be new but the added food safety and sustainability aspects of such certification are not new at all.
In paragraph 23 “many biologists” are reported to be worrying about tilapia farming leaving lakes dead and species extinct. However, only one is quoted. I can’t help but wonder how many were contacted for the article. In the case of the afore mentioned Dr. Chilton we provided 16 voices that stood in contrast to his often found hyperbole but  none were used to counter him.
Paragraph 34 notes that the Mayo Clinic advises patients that tilapia and catfish, “don’t appear to be as heart-healthy” as other fish. In our contacts with Ms. Rosenthal, prior to publication, we actually provided her with a statement from Mayo Clinic dietitians who said specifically of the tilapia debacle in 2008, “I'm going to continue to eat fish — at least twice weekly. I'm going to choose a variety of fatty fish — including tilapia and catfish along with others especially high in the good fats such as salmon, tuna and mackerel.” This clear endorsement of tilapia by the Mayo Clinic was reiterated by registered dietitian Jennifer McGuire and is not reflected in the article.
We look forward to your review of this report.
Gavin Gibbons
National Fisheries Institute
CC:         John Geddes
Managing Editor
Jim Roberts
Assistant Managing Editor
Gerald Marzorati
Assistant Managing Editor
Philip Corbett
Associate Managing Editor
Greg Brock
Senior Editor
Dana Canedy
Senior Editor
Arthur Brisbane
Public Editor
From: Keenan, Sandra [mailto:**************]
Sent: Tuesday, May 03, 2011 9:39 AM
To: Gavin Gibbons
Subject: tilapia farming
Dear Mr. Gibbons,
Thank you for the input on the tilapia farming story. With a careful reading, you will find that all the points you make about tilapia and the industry are well represented in Ms. Rosenthal's balanced, measured and expertly sourced piece.
Please let me know if you would like to discuss this further.
Sandy Keenan
environment editor/The New York Times

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