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Beware of Tilapia - the Fishy Fish
by Barbara Minton
(The Best Years in Life) Tilapia is a mild flavored fish that has become popular as a result of its low price, but something about this low price is fishy. It is achieved by converting the young female fish into males through the use of a toxic hormone drug, 17 alpha-methyltestosterone, a synthetic version of testosterone, the hormone that produces male characteristics.
Raising an all male population allows fish farmers to produce bigger fish in a shorter time period with less feed. It also allows them to produce fattened profits. However, consumers have no idea that the fish they are eating have undergone hormone-induced sex changes, and the long term consequences of such changes to health and the environment have yet to be determined.
Almost all tilapia sold in the U.S. is hormone drug treated
Tilapias are warm water fish that originated in Africa and the Middle East. Most of the tilapia sold on grocery stores today comes from fish farms in China, the most polluted country on the planet.
The problem for tilapia farmers is the quick maturation of the fish, at two to three months of age, and their ability to start breeding at a rate of once a month. These characteristics result in the overpopulation and the stunting of growth because of the crowding of the fish. Another problem associated with a mix of males and females is that the size of the fish for harvest vary from small to large due to the faster growth of males. This makes it more difficult to establish uniformity of product. For producers wanting high yields of large-sized fish in three to four months, having all male fry is preferable.
The most efficient and least expensive method for achieving sex reversal is the use of 17 alpha-methyltestosterone. If properly done, sex reversal with methyltestosterone treatment can be 98% to 100% effective.
Treatment with methyltestosterone is now the chosen method of producing tilapia in fish farms worldwide. Virtually all tilapia sold in traditional American supermarkets and grocery stores is tilapia fed with methyltestosterone.
Methyltestosterone is highly toxic to the human liver
Methyltestosterone was created in an attempt to modify the chemical structure of the predominantly male hormone testosterone, so it could be patented as a drug. It has been available for several years as a hormone substitute for men and women with a deficiency of testosterone, and has been a favorite of body builders. The joining of the 17 alpha-methyl group to testosterone allows the drug to pass through the liver without being metabolized when administered orally. However, it also makes the drug highly toxic to the liver and capable of causing liver cancer. The drug has been taken off the market in Germany due to its high liver toxicity.
Industry reports claim that after five days of withdrawal from the hormone drug laced feed, the levels of male sex hormone in the treated fish return to normal, indicating that no methyltestosterone residues are present. According to these reports, the fish are therefore safe to eat. However, no long term independent studies have been completed to determine if this statement is indeed true.
Hormone drug treatment of fish is restricted in other countries
In some countries, restrictions exist on the sale of hormone treated fish unless it can be proven that there are no risks to human health from consuming them. Where such restrictions are in place, marketers of fish raised on hormone drugs can't sell their products. Marketing of treated fish is illegal in the EU countries and in India.
Many people do not want to eat food that has been altered with substances that change its basic biology. Although it can be argued that the ability of technology to provide cheap food is a good thing, new technologies often bring unintended and unwanted consequences. Little is known about the effects of the testosterone drug on fish or on the environment. Clearly, the hormone drug passes through the fish and enters environmental channels such as water and land. Unintended consequences from the use of sex changing drugs in fish would not be the first unintended consequence for the food industry. That industry thought it was a really good idea to use pulverized parts of cows in animal feed to help speed cheap food to market and fatten bottom lines. The result was cases of mad cow disease.
One large health oriented grocery chain, Whole Foods Market, has refused to sell tilapia treated with methyltestosterone, and has scoured the world to find fish farms that did not use the drug. They worked out arrangements with farms in Ecuador and Costa Rica to supply hormone-free fish. No fish containing hormones are now sold in their fish cases.
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