Shellfish, Red Tides, and Farming versus Wild Caught
Let’s talk a little about shellfish. The good, the bad, and the really, really butt-ugly.
Shellfish is absolutely and amazingly delicious—no doubt about that. There is nothing quite like the taste, texture, and visual appeal of the soft white meats that are found in shrimp, crabs, lobsters and various other varieties of shellfish.
But the truth is: it’s hardly a health food.
And I’m going to tell you why.
There are two areas of danger to look at here. One area is simply inherent with the product. The other area occurs in the grocery store.
Probably the biggest reason to avoid shellfish in general is the fact that it is one of the most common allergen-causing foods, and such allergies are surprising common across racial, cultural, and national lines and divides. No one seems to be immune. Granted, most people that have shellfish allergies know it and avoid eating it. But, and this is a big butt—you just never know when an allergy is going to raise its ugly head—for the very first time.
Certain shellfish allergies are surprising lethal, and also amazingly fast. If you or a loved one have ever experienced even the slightest reaction to eating shellfish, it is going to be a really good idea for you to forgo it completely. Such reactions might be as mild as a minor rash, a bit of trouble swallowing, or tingling in the lips or face. A little dose of caution here can go a long way toward keeping you being seen—rather than viewed.
Shellfish are bottom feeders, and as such eat a lot of parasites and dead skin of other sea creatures. Along with sewage and waste commonly discharged into the waters of the world. Shellfish do not have an advanced digestive system to filter out the toxins and parasites they ingest. What this means is, that what goes into shellfish, stays in shellfish—and goes into you when you eat it.
More bad news. An incredible amount of shellfish come from places in the world that are the most polluted, and from the waters of countries that do almost nothing to control such pollution. Again, it all ends up inside you when you ingest it.
While it is possible to almost completely remove the vein from shrimp, it is very difficult to remove the entire digestive tract as you do in fish. In other words, the shrimp poo that is inside the shrimp, stays inside the shrimp—and you eat it. In some of the smaller varieties of shrimp, such as salad shrimp, even the vein is not removed.
Shellfish of nearly every variety are well known to contain mercury. Perhaps no other seafood except Tuna has as much, again, probably due to the very primitive digestive system of the little critters.
Mercury—you don’t want that in you.
Seafood is often touted as a healthy alternative to red meat. In most cases this is true. Shellfish?—well, not so much. Shrimp, by and large has just as much cholesterol as a New York steak. You can actually eat over half the recommended amount of cholesterol for a day in just four or five large shrimp.
Delicious, yes. Healthy? Maybe not so much.
The risk of eating shellfish increases among those with existing health problems, and especially compromised immune systems (back to those again). People with altered iron metabolism, liver disease, and diabetes often have much more sensitive digestive systems, and therefore can be exposed to additional risk, simply because they cannot filter out the toxins, just as the shellfish themselves can’t.
Undercooked shellfish can be especially deadly; much more so than other seafood, again, because of its bottom feeder status. The human and fish waste that shellfish routine consume may contain E.coli, Salmonella, Norwalk virus, and Hepatitis A. All these extra and very unhealthy ingredients are probably not mentioned in your favorite cookbook.
Red tide is also potentially harmful to human health. We can become seriously ill from eating oysters and other shellfish contaminated with red tide toxin. What is red tide? Essentially, it’s a common name for algal bloom, which is a large concentration of generally harmful aquatic microorganisms—not one of which is any good for you. These concentrations can become so incredibly high that it actually colors the ocean—most usually red.
Yes, there are non-harmful algal blooms.
Don’t count on those.
Shellfish just love eating this stuff, and again—they are unable to filter it out. Long story short? It all goes right into you, and it can lay you flat—forever.
Now let’s get into the potentially harmful and even deadly problems with shellfish at the grocery store level.
Shellfish is highly perishable. Much more so than nearly any other type of seafood. Do you think that that high-priced and slow selling species of shellfish in the full-service seafood case is rotated as often as it should be?
Do you really believe that overworked and over-rushed seafood department employees always cook the shellfish thoroughly? If you do, you have a much more highly developed sense of faith in human nature than is warranted. I have personally seen wild-caught (and very pricey) shrimp that was so old it was beginning to turn black, removed from the full-service seafood case and undercooked up into samples. Samples that were then placed on top of the counter to sit, and for the public to eat. Sometimes for hours on end.
On many more than rare occasions, I have pointed out the dangers of this practice to the upper management of Giant Stuff Mart. Aside from blank stares, every once in a great while I could get one of them to actually walk down to the counter to take a look. The result? Generally, a shrug and a long walk back to wherever it was they had come from.
Still think that’s a health food? Good luck on that one. Please, please, please—do not eat in-store prepared shellfish samples.
That kind of risk is something you just don’t need in your life.
What’s the difference between wild-caught and farm-raised? And between fresh and frozen?
So glad you asked.
Wild-caught is just exactly as the name implies. It is caught out there in the ocean, and it is—or more precisely was, a wild critter. Farm-raised is, again, just as the name implies—seafood raised on a farm. And no, there are no green pastures, rolling hills, and white split-rail fences on this farm. This is a seafood farm, and they basically come in two flavors. One is a farm that is actually part of a body of water that is generally fenced off with underwater sea-fences. The other type is large inland pools where the conditions of the sea are roughly replicated.
Which is better?
Hard to say. Most people tend to believe that wild-caught is the way to go because wild-caught sea-critters eat natural (and therefore basically organic) food. Farm-raised sea-critters eat processed fish foods provided to them by man. And there’s the rub. Often times this artificial fish feed contains things you don’t want in your daily diet.
Things like artificial coloring, hormones, and antibiotics.
Wild-caught, sadly also contains some of those things too. Things like spilled oil, mercury contamination, and general waste and sewage routinely dumped into the waters of the world. I have cracked open many, many cooked Dungeness Crabs that were black and slick on the inside from having ingested spilled oil from the ocean. Most definitely not a real good thing.
So which is better?
I would say wild-caught—with some important caveats, which we will get into in greater detail in chapter twelve. Farm-raised can be okay, but you do need to be careful. Probably the most important consideration is the country of origin. Choose carefully. By law, the country of origin is clearly stated (albeit in some awfully small print sometimes) on every package of seafood sold, and everything in the full-service case as well. Does the country of origin have a good reputation with its seafood exports, or do you constantly hear and read about seafood recalls from these places? China would be a prime example of a country of origin that should probably be avoided at all cost. Simply little to no regulation there. The United States, Canada, and the British Isles would be good examples of much safer countries—mostly because of much better seafood regulations.
I have unfortunately seen videos of some of the worst farm-raised practices from around the world (mostly Asia and South America) including the rather horrible and despicable practice of feeding fish poo back to the very same fish that expelled it. Yum-yum. Nothing wasted, I guess.
In one particular farm that raise the ever popular fish Tilapia, a fair number of dead fish would rise to the top of the large pools every morning. No idea in the world of what might have killed them, or when. They might have spent a fair amount of time at the bottom of the pool before rising. Yup, you guessed it. The dead fish were netted out of the pond right along with the healthy living fish—to be filleted, packed, and sent to distributors—and shipped all over the world to supermarkets of all kinds, both large and small, and to unsuspecting consumers. Do you want to eat this fish?
Maybe—but personally, I’m just saying no.
Fresh or frozen? Fresh tastes better—no doubt in the world about that. Trouble is; you don’t really have a clue as to just how fresh it is—or isn’t. Not quite as good tasting, but a whole lot safer, would be to buy wild-caught, pre-packaged (by the processor) frozen shellfish. Shellfish that has been very little, if at all, handled by grocery store employees. Generally, these are sold in one pound packages. Take these home, thaw them yourself where you can control both the method of thawing, and the time of the thawing—and you have seafood in general, and shellfish in particular, that is just about as safe as you can get it.
If you must buy “fresh” shellfish from the full-service case, please look for shells and meat that has not started to darken. On previously frozen cooked shellfish, look for shrimp tails and shellfish shells that are not darkened or spotted. Trust me—you don’t want those. And they are sold to the public—all the time.
There really ought to be a law—but there isn’t.
Next up, we’re going to take a look at what I like to call, “the very un-healthy Health Department,” and why this little agency has the potential to really ruin your week. It’s not the most appetizing of subjects, and I do not recommend reading on your lunch hour—especially if you are having seafood or deli items.
Just sayin’ . . .
Thanks for reading. Be back tomorrow with Chapter Eleven: The most UN-healthy Health Department.
Until then . . . Goodnight.
Dumb joke of the day . . .