Farmers Work a Second Shift to Supplement Income

Farmers Work a Second Shift to Supplement Income

An elderly man walks up the path to his farm in Cortland, Nebraska. American farmers who grow barley, millet and other minor grains earn 84 percent of their income by working off the farm. | Photo credit: Joel Sartore, NG Creative

The “average” American farmer earns an income above most Americans—but that’s often because they’re hustling in a second-job off the farm, according to data released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture last week. Read more of this post

Perdue Farms To Buy Natural Meat Maker & Chipotle Pork Supplier Niman Ranch

Perdue Farms to buy Chipotle pork supplier Niman Ranch

Poultry company Perdue Farms will buy natural meat maker Niman Ranch, which is Chipotle Mexican Grill’s biggest pork supplier and a brand name on U.S. restaurant menus, the two companies said on Tuesday. Read more of this post

The Not So COOL Reason You Won’t Know Where Your Steak Came From

The Not So COOL Reason You May Soon Not Know Where Your Steak Came From

Cases of bovine spongiform encephalopathy—mad cow disease—have been reported in Brazil as recently as 2014. When a cow was found to have died from the neurogenerative disease, which humans can contract by eating meat from sick animals, in 2012, a number of countries suspended beef imports from Brazil as a precaution. The United States was not among them. Read more of this post

The Big Business Behind The Local Food

The big business behind the local food

Produced is displayed at a Whole Foods Market Inc. store in Oakland, California. Photograph by David Paul Morris — Bloomberg via Getty Images

Grocery chains and big box retailers are aggressively expanding their locally grown offerings. But there are real concerns about what consumers are getting when they buy “local.” Read more of this post

US Wants Egg Executives Punished for Salmonella Outbreak


A judge should consider the “widespread harm” done by a major 2010 salmonella outbreak and the food safety lapses that preceded it in sentencing two egg industry executives whose company was responsible, prosecutors said Monday. Read more of this post

Scientists trace deadly piglet virus hitting US farms to China


Published October 23, 2013


A virus deadly to baby pigs that has roiled the U.S. pork industry likely originated in the Anhui Province of China and may have evolved from a virus seen in bats, according to a report by veterinary researchers at the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine at Virginia Tech.

The report should help diagnostic researchers and federal officials, who have been trying to trace the origin of the porcine epidemic diarrhea virus (PEDv) since it was first identified in the United States this past spring.

Previously, investigators and veterinary researchers tracking the outbreak said that there was some indication that the PEDv strain seen in the U.S. was 99.5 percent similar in genetic make-up to that identified in China. But exactly where it came from and how it arrived in the United States were mysteries.

According to the report published last week in the American Academy of Microbiology journal mBio, the researchers extracted strains of PEDv virus from infected animals in Minnesota and Iowa.

They then compared the genetic code of the virus in these samples to PEDv samples isolated in China’s Anhui province during an outbreak that began in late 2010. The results showed that the three strains that have emerged in the United States are most closely related to particular Chinese strains.

“Taken together, the available sequence and phylogenetic data indicate that the PEDV strains emerging in the United States originated from China,” according to the published report.

The researchers cautioned that “the exact source of the origin is difficult to identify at this point.”

Veterinary researchers and U.S. Department of Agriculture officials say that PEDv does not pose a threat to human health, nor to food safety.

While, there has been no indication that PEDv could jump from one species to another, the research team said it found the U.S. PEDv strains to have some of the same genetic features seen in a bat coronavirus. That, in turn, suggests the virus may have possibly having originated in bats and a potential for “cross-species transmission,” according to the report.

There is no definitive data yet of how many animals have died in the United States from PEDv as farmers are not required to report PEDv outbreaks.

As of the week of October 6, there have been 768 confirmed cases reported in 18 states, according to data compiled by state university diagnostic laboratories and federal officials. Each reported case could represent thousands of infected animals.

Diagnostic veterinarians, producers and some livestock economists said they expected the virus to spread more rapidly as temperatures cool in the fall when piglets are being born. The virus is particularly deadly to very young pigs: average mortality rates range from 80 to 100 percent.

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John Ratzenberger’s American Made TV Show Kicks off Campaign in FundAnything

Los Angeles, CA (PRWEB) October 21, 2013

John Ratzenberger

John Ratzenberger (best known for playing the mailman Cliff Clavin on Cheers) is launching a crowd source campaign today with FundAnything for his brand new television series, ‘John Ratzenberger’s American Made.’

A video release on the show and campaign is available at:

“From the things we need, to the things we want, to the things we dream about— we’re going to show you the best of our country’s home grown products,” says Ratzenberger. “But more importantly, we’ll highlight the remarkable men and women who use their skills and ingenuity to create goods they can proudly call made in the USA.”

The show will also empower viewers with a direct and easy path on where to buy the products profiled. The series will be produced with, which Ratzenberger co-founded.

“We chose to crowd fund the initial few episodes for strategic reasons,” said CEO, Jeffrey Solomon. “Crowd funding is an excellent way to mobilize fans and promote our American made corporate partners before the show launches. It’s also an excellent way to allow the public to be a part of the show before its release on TV.”

Crowd funding has grown into an extremely successful method to fund creative projects without the bureaucracy of corporate mandates. Ratzenberger’s campaign will give donors a chance to be on the show; join John at a VIP events; receive products profiled, and many more opportunities only available to donors. He has already signed on 30+ American-made companies and industry groups.

Those interested in participating in John’s FundAnything campaign can visit for more details. Individuals can also see these companies/industry groups on the TV series Facebook page at

Ratzenberger’s career includes 40 feature films and dozens of television shows including the highly successful ‘John Ratzenberger’s Made in America,’ which ran 5 seasons on the Travel Channel from 2004 to 2008. John is currently a regular on FX’s ‘Legit,’ and has recently appeared on Fox’s ‘Bones,’ CBS’s ‘CSI,’ Lifetime’s ‘Drop Dead Diva,’ and TNT’s ‘Franklin & Bash.’ He is also in production for the newest Pixar film ‘Inside Out.’

About Reality TV Star is a reality TV production company that uses technology to improve the process of developing, casting and producing reality TV shows. offers fans the ability to upload “slice of life,” casting, and “home” video clips, for the chance to be discovered by the team of producers.

Read the full story at

To learn more about Made in USA Certification please visit our website at:

Made in USA Certified

The Honey Launderers: Uncovering the Largest Food Fraud in U.S. History


By Susan Berfield | BusinessWeek – Mon, Sep 23, 2013 1:14 PM EDT


Magnus von Buddenbrock and Stefanie Giesselbach arrived in Chicago in 2006 full of hope. He was 30, she was 28, and they had both won their first overseas assignments at ALW Food Group, a family-owned food-trading company based in Hamburg. Von Buddenbrock had joined ALW—the initials stand for its founder, Alfred L. Wolff—four years earlier after earning a degree in marketing and international business, and he was expert in the buying and selling of gum arabic, a key ingredient in candy and soft drinks. Giesselbach had started at ALW as a 19-year-old apprentice. She worked hard, learned quickly, spoke five languages, and within three years had become the company’s first female product manager. Her specialty was honey. When the two colleagues began their new jobs in a small fourth-floor office a few blocks from Millennium Park in downtown Chicago, ALW’s business was growing, and all they saw was opportunity.

On March 24, 2008, von Buddenbrock came to the office around 8:30 a.m., as usual. He was expecting a quiet day: It was a holiday in Germany, and his bosses there had the day off. Giesselbach was on holiday, too; she had returned to Germany to visit her family and boyfriend. Sometime around 10 a.m., von Buddenbrock heard a commotion in the reception area and went to have a look. A half-dozen armed federal agents, all wearing bulletproof vests, had stormed in. “They made a good show, coming in with full force,” he recalls. “It was pretty scary.”

The agents asked if anybody was hiding anywhere, then separated von Buddenbrock and his assistant, the only two employees there. Agents brought von Buddenbrock into a conference room, where they questioned him about ALW’s honey business. After a couple of hours they left, taking with them stacks of paper files, copies of computer hard drives, and samples of honey.

Giesselbach returned from Germany three days later. Her flight was about to land at O’Hare when the crew announced that everyone would have to show their passports at the gate. As Giesselbach walked off the plane, federal agents pulled her aside. She, too, answered their questions about ALW’s honey shipments. After an hour, they let her leave. The agents, from the U.S. Department of Commerce and the Department of Homeland Security, had begun to uncover a plot by ALW to import millions of pounds of cheap honey from China by disguising its origins.

Americans consume more honey than anyone else in the world, nearly 400 million pounds every year. About half of that is used by food companies in cereals, bread, cookies, and all sorts of other processed food. Some 60 percent of the honey is imported from Argentina, Brazil, Canada, and other trading partners. Almost none comes from China. After U.S. beekeepers accused Chinese companies of selling their honey at artificially low prices, the government imposed import duties in 2001 that as much as tripled the price of Chinese honey. Since then, little enters from China legally.

Von Buddenbrock and Giesselbach continued to cooperate with the investigators, according to court documents. In September 2010, though, the junior executives were formally accused of helping ALW perpetuate a sprawling $80 million food fraud, the largest in U.S. history. Andrew Boutros, assistant U.S. attorney in Chicago, had put together the case: Eight other ALW executives, including Alexander Wolff, the chief executive officer, and a Chinese honey broker, were indicted on charges alleging a global conspiracy to illegally import Chinese honey going back to 2002. Most of the accused executives live in Germany and, for now, remain beyond the reach of the U.S. justice system. They are on Interpol’s list of wanted people. U.S. lawyers for ALW declined to comment.

In the spring of 2006, as Giesselbach, who declined requests for an interview, was preparing for her job in Chicago, she started receiving e-mail updates about various shipments of honey moving through ports around the world. According to court documents, one on May 3 was titled “Loesungmoeglichkeiten,” or “Solution possibilities.” During a rare inspection, U.S. customs agents had become suspicious about six shipping containers of honey headed for ALW’s customers. The honey came from China but had been labeled Korean White Honey.

From China, The Future of Fish

Meet the Chinese tilapia, a bland food product that grows fast and sells cheap. Environmentalists hate it, but Americans keep ordering more.

By Bruce Einhorn

(Fixes reference to U.S. food-service market in the 27th paragraph.)

At the end of a wooden pier, a squat red machine the size of a dishwasher hums along with the din of nearby cicadas. The fish-feeder is tossing grain pellets into one of Chen Haiping’s nine fish ponds, each as long as a football field, in the town of Shuixi, in China’s Guangdong province. It’s breakfast time, and thousands of tilapia are thrashing their tails and sticking their mouths into the air to get some of the soy-and-corn mixture. Chen, a 32-year-old former duck farmer with a wispy mustache, has been running this farm for eight years.

Before the tilapia, these ponds were filled with shrimp, which the Chinese like. They aren’t big fans of tilapia, a foreign fish; the name in Chinese,luofeiyu, refers to tilapia’s origins in Africa. It doesn’t have much flavor, and it doesn’t grow big enough to put in the middle of the table at a family meal. Americans, however, can’t get enough of Chinese-raised tilapia, so tilapia it is. The fish, Chen notes, are hardier and don’t require as much work. “Shrimp can die much more easily,” says Chen, who wears a wide-brimmed straw hat to protect himself from the 95-degree heat.

Despite environmental warnings about Chinese-raised tilapia from watchdog groups such as the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch, which publishes an influential best choices/avoid list of seafood and rates Chinese-raised tilapia as “avoid,” U.S. consumption keeps rising. In 2009 the U.S. imported 404 million pounds of tilapia, up from 298 million in 2005. Wal-Mart Stores (WMT) imports nearly 200 shipping containers, or 8.8 million pounds, every month, although they will not say how much comes from China. (The company declined to comment.) Domestic fish farmers can’t come close to meeting demand. Although there are tilapia farms in the U.S., the fish does better in tropical climates, so most of it comes from Asia or Latin America.

As overfishing threatens the world’s wild fisheries, aquaculture advocates say fish farms will play a far greater role in feeding people around the world. “We are no more going to get our seafood from the wild than we get our beef, nuts, fruit from the wild,” predicts Kevin Fitzsimmons, a professor at the University of Arizona and former president of the World Aquaculture Society. He is also on the board of HQ Sustainable Maritime Industries (HQS), an NYSE Amex-listed company that sells Chinese-raised tilapia. “It’s all going to be farm-raised,” he says. And there’s no fish better suited to this new world than tilapia, says Fitzsimmons. It’s a fast-growing species with mild-tasting flesh that producers can easily adapt to all kinds of uses. “Tilapia,” says Fitzsimmons, “is going to be basically where chicken is with poultry.”

That means that the creatures thrashing in Chen’s ponds are the future of fish. The growing American appetite has led to a boom in Chinese aquaculture: With hundreds of breeding centers, fish farms, feed mills, and processing plants, China is the world’s tilapia superpower. That’s why I’ve traveled to the heart of the Chinese aquaculture industry, in southern Guangdong and the nearby island province of Hainan, to see how farmed-in-China fish make their way to the American table.

For a tilapia, Chen’s farm is a pleasant enough place to grow up. The farm is about an hour and a half’s drive on potholed roads from Zhanjiang, the closest big city in this part of Guangdong. The province—home to huge factories owned by companies like Taiwan’s Foxconn that employ hundreds of thousands of workers and produce iPhones and other products for export—is one of the most polluted areas in one of the world’s most polluted countries. Smog regularly fouls the air and chemicals poison the water in the boomtowns of the Pearl River Delta, near Guangdong’s border with Hong Kong. Those factories, however, haven’t yet made it to the southwest of Guangdong, an area 200 miles away that is still a green oasis of banana trees, rice paddies, and sugarcane farms.

The conditions on the fish farms are surprisingly clean. Because tilapia—unlike farmed salmon—grow quickly, they don’t need big supplies of antibiotics to keep them healthy. Western media sometimes report on the filthy, algae-filled ponds of Chinese aquaculture. It’s true for many mainland farms, especially those raising eel. Tilapia, though, have meat that easily takes on the flavor of whatever the fish happen to have consumed, and tilapia that swim in muddy, algae-filled waters end up with a musty flesh that American consumers hate. Before accepting tilapia from Chinese farms, buyers will check to make sure the fish don’t have that pondy flavor. To avoid rejections, Chen and other farmers say, they keep their ponds clear of material that could ruin the tilapia’s taste.

Doing so requires a lot of water, but Chen doesn’t have to worry about paying for it. He takes his water from a nearby canal maintained by the local government, part of a policy to promote the growth of aquaculture through tax breaks and other subsidies. For farmers like Chen, it’s a good deal. “The water,” he says, “is free.”

With the hot weather, frequent feedings, and fresh water, fish destined for dinner in the U.S. need just a few months to grow to a harvestable size of 1 to 2 pounds. Soon a handful of Chen’s workers will be standing up to their armpits in the water, dragging nets across the ponds and forcing the tilapia all into one end. They’ll grab the fish by hand and throw them into buckets onshore. Other workers will dump the containers into a large truck that can carry as many as 10,000 live fish. Then the truck will head off to a processing plant, where the fish will become food.

There’s no shortage of facilities nearby to do the killing. In one sign of how quickly the industry has taken off, there are 268 factories in the Zhanjiang area that can kill, skin, and freeze tilapia, according to the local aquatic products import and export association. That’s a 33 percent increase in just three years.

A decade ago, few Americans ate tilapia. The fish didn’t even make the top 10 list of consumed seafood in the U.S. until 2002, when it squeaked by with average consumption of just 0.3 lb. a year. Then demand surged in the wake of the Atlantic cod fishery collapse. By 2009, according to data released on Sept. 7 by the National Marine Fisheries Service, Americans ate 1.2 pounds of tilapia. That put the fish well ahead of cod and catfish and just behind pollock as the most popular white fish in the U.S. (Shrimp is the top seafood, at 4.1 pounds consumed per American, and canned tuna the top fish, at 2.5 pounds.)

It’s not that tilapia is particularly tasty; it simply takes on the flavor of other ingredients. “It has got nothing going for it,” says Colin Freeman, a consultant for Pristine Oyster Farm in South Australia. A few weeks before I travel to Chen’s farm in Hainan, I’m visiting relatives in Brookline, Mass., near Boston, and stop by Wulf’s Fish Market, a shop on Harvard Street not far from JFK’s birthplace. The store doesn’t carry tilapia, an annoyed employee tells me, even though people often ask for it. “Tilapia,” he snarls, “is the tofu of fish.”

Unlike salmon, tuna, and other big ocean fish, tilapia’s flesh doesn’t contain omega-3 oils, one of the main health benefits of seafood. But because it is cheap and easily raised on farms, it has created an opening for China. Just as Chinese factories are the go-to source for inexpensive toys, electronics, and clothes, the country’s aquaculture industry has quickly come to dominate production of cheap, mass-produced fish. According to the U.S. Commerce Dept., about 80 percent of the frozen tilapia in the U.S. is now imported from China, with restaurants and supermarkets the biggest buyers. Tilapia demand “has grown at a phenomenal rate,” says Keith Decker, president and chief operating officer of High Liner Foods USA, the Danvers (Mass.) subsidiary of the Nova Scotia-based producer of fresh and frozen seafood. The company is a big importer of cod and haddock, and is now a major buyer of tilapia, which it sells wholesale as well as under its Sea Cuisine brand. The company’s products include over 50 types of tilapia meals such as Lemon Pepper Tilapia and Coconut Crusted Tilapia.

Tilapia is especially well-suited to American tastes. “Tilapia fulfills a need for a large portion of the population that doesn’t like their fish tasting ‘fishy,’ ” says chef Rick Moonen, owner of Rick Moonen’s RM seafood restaurant at the Mandalay Bay hotel in Las Vegas and author of the 2008 cookbook Fish Without a Doubt. Pollock remains slightly more popular, as measured by per-capita consumption. That’s misleading, though, since pollock caught off the coast of Alaska is ground up by McDonald’s (MCD) and other fast-food chains and turned into fish sandwiches and nuggets; few people go to their local supermarket or Ruby Tuesday (RT) looking to have pollock for dinner. Tilapia has gained in popularity because one fillet by itself can be a main course. It’s what Decker and others in the fish business call a “center-of-the-plate” fish. “Tilapia,” Decker says, “has a huge future.”

Given the record of products made in China—milk tainted with melamine, toys with lead, toothpaste with the poisonous chemical diethylene glycol—many Americans may not welcome that future. The U.S. imported $5.2 billion worth of food from China in 2008, with aquaculture products accounting for 41 percent. A report last year from the U.S. Agriculture Dept.’s Economic Research Service called into question Chinese safety standards for farm-raised fish and seafood. “Fish are often raised in ponds where they feed on waste from poultry and livestock,” the report said. Meanwhile, environmentalists are concerned about the impact of China’s fish farms, as water filled with tilapia feces is flushed from the ponds. They also worry about the invasive nature of the species in the U.S. (Last year in Louisiana’s Plaquemines Parish, for example, officials used poison to kill off tilapia in the area’s canals and ditches.) “In theory there is quite a lot of regulation in place,” says Pete Bridson, aquaculture research manager at the Seafood Watch program in Monterey, who traveled to China last year to visit tilapia farms. “But the environmental side of the regulation is not enforced very well.”

A global aquaculture industry dominated by China worries Mike Picchietti, president of Regal Springs Tilapia, a company based in Bradenton, Fla., that operates tilapia farms in Indonesia, Honduras, and Mexico, and is a supplier to Costco (COST). For instance, he says Chinese farmers save money using fish feed only when the tilapia are bigger. When they’re still young, he says, farmers toss animal waste in the ponds and allow the tilapia to feed on the algae bloom that follows. “They’re able to cut their feed costs because they’re able to use manure,” he fumes. Raised-in-China tilapia are therefore much cheaper, according to Picchietti. “The Chinese are able to use cowshit,” he says, “and I can’t.” Chinese tilapia growers deny Picchietti’s claim.

As the sun sets and people elsewhere in the city are heading home for dinner, at Guangdong Evergreen’s processing plant near Zhanjiang, employees are gathered near the loading dock, preparing to start their shifts. Trucks are arriving with thousands of freshly harvested tilapia, and the fish need to be killed and processed quickly to ensure they are as fresh as possible before going into the deep freezer. Guangdong Evergreen has made agreements with farmers to buy their harvest-ready tilapia for processing. This factory is where fish from farmer Chen Haiping’s ponds will meet their maker.

For workers and visitors alike, entering the plant is no simple procedure. They must first change into a head-to-toe white suit, making sure to take off all watches, rings, and jewelry, and put on a face mask. After washing their hands thoroughly, visitors walk through a pool of disinfectant and then into the plant itself.

Inside, hundreds work in silence as fish come off the loading dock. First, workers kill each fish by jabbing it in the head with a knife. Then they leave the dead tilapia to sit so the blood drains out of its body. Next the fish go onto a conveyor belt and the process speeds up as workers swiftly fillet the fish. With their pay partially determined by the number of fish they can process in an hour, the best workers can do this with just four cuts of the knife. After dropping the head, tail, and other remains on the floor to be picked up later, the men (women work elsewhere on the line, but the cutters are almost always men) put the six- to eight-ounce fillet back on the conveyor belt. Soon, different workers skin the fillet, followed by others who trim off any leftovers. Within a few minutes, workers are readying the fish for the freezer.

Other plants follow similar procedures. At the one operated by HQ Sustainable Maritime Industries, an Evergreen rival with offices in Seattle and Hainan, the clean suits are color-coded: Visitors wear white; assembly-line workers, blue; managers, red; quality-control supervisors, yellow. On a recent visit to the factory, plant manager Wang Fusheng points to a yellow-suited officer roaming the fluorescent-lit room. “That guy is powerful,” he explains. “He can stop anything right away.” Before HQ’s fillets go into cold storage, the fish pass through a metal detector, just in case any stray flecks of a filleting knife have made their way into the product. “Every day we account for how many knives we’ve given to workers,” he says. “If one knife is missing, you check everything.”

Executives with tilapia processors in China point to such requirements as examples of their determination to maintain product safety. Chinese government labs regularly inspect for melamine and other banned additives; some Western buyers have their own quality inspectors or rely on third-party auditors to test the fish. Given the frequent inspections by Chinese officials and Western nongovernmental organizations, HQ Sustainable Chief Executive Officer Norbert Sporns rejects accusations that Chinese tilapia is substandard. “China is the most scrutinized export market in the world,” says Sporns. He’s a six-foot-seven former immigration lawyer from Montreal who got involved in Chinese aquaculture in the late 1990s; his wife, HQ Chairman Wang Li, is the daughter of a former chamber of commerce chairman in Hainan. Sporns compares Chinese tilapia farms favorably to catfish farms in Louisiana, where he calls conditions “despicable.” “Our standards,” he says, “are way, way better.”

In addition to operating processing plants, both HQ Sustainable and Guangdong Evergreen produce fish feed for farmers—and executives reject the assertion that local farmers reduce costs by feeding the fish animal waste. In the past, some Chinese may have cut corners that way, but inspectors—from the government and from independent certification bodies like the Aquaculture Certification Council, based in Crystal River, Fla.—have put an end to the practice, they say. “No one dares do that now,” says Lee Shuguang, an Evergreen manager.

Critics have plenty of other concerns. Costco, for instance, won’t purchase tilapia raised on Chinese farms because of concerns about mainland production standards. Its tilapia comes from Regal Springs Tilapia. (Prices vary locally, but at the Costco in Yonkers, N.Y., fillets are $5.49 a pound; the nearby Sam’s Club sells its tilapia for $4.77 a pound.) “China’s track record in certain areas isn’t perfect,” says Bill Mardon, a seafood buyer for Costco. He singles out Chinese processors’ use of a glaze on frozen fillets. It contains carbon monoxide, which preserves the color of the fish and can make a fillet look fresher than it is. “Even if the fish starts to go bad, the fish will look good,” says Mardon. For the consumer looking at a frozen tilapia fillet, “the first line of defense is visibility,” he says. “If the carbon monoxide takes this away, it’s kind of dangerous.”

Evergreen manager Liu Xie calls this unfair, and says the company is only responding to its customers. “Supermarkets want us to do this,” he says. “It doesn’t have any effect on people; it’s just to preserve the color.” Regulators in the U.S. and the European Union allow carbon monoxide, he adds. Liu says some fish get coated and some don’t, depending on the customer’s specifications. Either way, the fish then go into the freezer, set to -36C. That’s cold. “If you freeze a man at minus 40 degrees,” HQ plant manager Wang explains helpfully, “he will keep forever.”

Chinese aquaculture officials object strongly to Seafood Watch’s “avoid” recommendation. “They don’t believe in aquaculture,” Sporns says. “The Monterey Bay Aquarium makes money off of ocean fish.” Tilapia, a small and visually nondescript omnivore, is not a fish that captures the imagination of aquarium goers. “How many tilapia do you see there?” asks Sporns. “None.”

For $23.95, diners at La Hacienda de San Angel, a new restaurant at Walt Disney World, can have grilled tilapia with roasted corn, cactus leaves, and mango chutney. The entrées at Daddy Jack’s New England Lobster & Chowder House in Dallas include sautéed tilapia with lemon scallion butter and stuffed tilapia with Ritz cracker crabmeat stuffing. The Olive Garden in Rockaway, N.J., offers parmesan-crusted tilapia with vegetables and angel hair pasta for $14.95.

As tilapia becomes more common on menus across the U.S., many eateries are turning to Sysco (SYY), America’s largest distributor of food to restaurants, hospitals, and schools. With 400,000 customers, Houston-based Sysco has 17 percent of the $200 billion total U.S. food-service market, and those customers want more tilapia. “In the last six years, it’s been growing about 20 percent a year,” says Butch Vidrine, director of seafood purchasing for Sysco. He likes the fish’s versatility: “You can fry it, grill it, barbecue it; you can do everything to it.”

Responding to that demand, Sysco has become a big buyer of frozen tilapia. About 95 percent of the company’s tilapia sales are frozen, says Vidrine. For years, Sysco bought frozen fish from Regal Springs farms in Indonesia and wouldn’t consider buying tilapia from China. Recently, Sysco changed its policy, approving a Chinese processor this summer. Given the 30 to 50 percent lower prices of Chinese tilapia and the growing demand for the fish, Vidrine says, it’s time to give China a try. “China is like the Wild West,” he says. “Some will meet [standards]. Some won’t.”

Tilapia from China is making inroads elsewhere. In September, Whole Foods Market (WFMI) locations in California started carrying the Lillian’s Healthy Gourmet line of prepared frozen tilapia meals made by HQ Sustainable. At the other end of the shopping spectrum, tilapia fillets from China are in the freezer sections of Wal-Mart superstores around the country, selling under the Sea Best name. The two ingredients are: “Tilapia” and “Carbon Monoxide (To Retain Natural Color).”

Although Las Vegas chef Rick Moonen is a tilapia convert, he won’t sell Chinese-raised tilapia at his 17,000-square-foot restaurant—complete with raw bar, sushi bar, and three private dining rooms—at the Mandalay Bay because Seafood Watch tells him not to. “I pretty much follow their guidelines when making choices at my restaurant,” says Moonen, 54.

A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and co-founder of the three-star restaurant Molyvos in New York, Moonen used to dismiss tilapia. That’s changed. Fish Without a Doubt includes 13 tilapia recipes. In early September, Moonen was one of five of Bravo’s “Top Chef Masters” participating in a competition to create the best new dish for spectators at the U.S. Open tennis tournament; Moonen’s entry was a burger-like combination of shrimp and tilapia. “I love the fish,” he says. “I think it’s very versatile.” He serves non-Chinese tilapia at his restaurant in dishes like fish tacos.

If it is going to win over Seafood Watch and Moonen, China’s aquaculture industry needs to address concerns about tilapia and the environment. The World Wildlife Fund is one of several green groups introducing new standards for tilapia farming. “You don’t want to tarnish the biggest sector just because there are some bad actors,” says Aaron McNevin, an aquaculture specialist at the WWF who has worked with industry executives in China and the U.S. to identify farms that try to improve their sustainability records. “Of course there are some bad actors, because China has the most producers,” he says. “But there are some groups in China that have raised the bar.”

The new standards might help with environmentalists, but a bigger concern for Chinese fish farmers is facing the relentless pressure for lower prices from foreign buyers. For all the popularity of Chinese-raised tilapia, a common complaint among people in the industry is the difficulty of making money selling the fish for export. This is another area where Chinese aquaculture is like Chinese manufacturing: Both are at the mercy of buyers like Wal-Mart, which demands ever-lower prices even as costs rise along the production chain. “Land costs, labor costs, raw material costs, they’ve all gone up 20 to 30 percent in the last three years,” says Chen Dan, chairman of Guangdong Evergreen. Brokers buying fish for the U.S. market don’t care, says Shen Jian, secretary general of the local aquaculture association. “The price is too low,” he gripes. “It’s unfair.”

Chinese producers are focusing on ways to eke out more profits. Evergreen hopes to figure out how to air-freight containers of fresh tilapia to the U.S., since fresh prices are about 50 percent higher than frozen. HQ Sustainable is focusing on value-added products such as facial creams made with collagen from tilapia scales, and it may spin off on the Shanghai stock exchange the subsidiary that makes these supplements.

HQ Sustainable CEO Sporns also dreams of working with a partner to create a fish feed that contains omega-3, the healthy fish oil that tilapia lacks. “If you have tilapia meal enriched with omega-3, that makes for a healthier tilapia,” he says. “Then we’ve got checkmate.”

Back in southwestern Guangdong, farmer Chen is focusing on more short-term solutions. Taking shelter under a tree from a midday cloudburst, he puffs on his bamboo water pipe and explains how the economics of tilapia have suddenly turned against him. With China’s economy booming, costs are up sharply. His rent—which was just 500 yuan ($75) per mu (equal to about 79 square yards)—has more than doubled. Pay for his dozen full-time workers and 15 part-timers has jumped 40 percent, to 1,500 yuan a month. Feed and electricity costs are up, too. Meanwhile, the price he can get for his fish hasn’t kept pace. Last year, 10 percent of the Zhanjiang region’s tilapia farmers gave up on farming the fish.

Chen has thought about giving up, too, but for now he’s sticking with tilapia. He can’t do anything about the increase in his fixed costs, so he is trying to make up for smaller margins with greater volume. To do that, Chen has made his ponds deeper, making room for 20 percent more fish. “We can grow bigger fish,” he says hopefully. “And more fish.”

Einhorn is Asia regional editor in Bloomberg Businessweek‘s Hong Kong bureau.

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The dangers of farm-raised tilapia from China

COMMENTARY Appeared originally on Studio V Health WordPress

As a proponent of healthy eating and educating the public on sound evidence based research, I find it very alarming that there is a significant trend in this country whereby many people accept as fact, “the foods that we import that are so abundant in our supermarkets must be okay to eat, otherwise the government wouldn’t allow it”. Sound strange?

Well, I heard one of my patients say this to me just the other day when we were having a discussion about the pros and cons of eating fish as a regular source of protein in our diets. Let me introduce to you, what has become extremely popular on the average Americans dinner table over the past few years and that is tilapia. You’ve seen it, perhaps have eaten it at home or even in your local restaurant. In fact, it’s become so popular that Kevin Fitzsimmons, a professor at the University of Arizona and board member of HQ Sustainable Maritime Industries, that sells Chinese farm-raised tilapia was recently quoted, “Tilapia is going to be basically where chicken is with poultry”.

The U.S. currently imports about 80 percent of the frozen tilapia from China. So what’s the problem with this scenario?

Consumers need to be made more aware of the problems with eating tilapia that is imported from this world’s largest producer of the farm raised variety. Numerous environmental warnings about Chinese-raised tilapia from such groups as the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch have put this fish on their “avoid’ list of seafoods, this despite the fact that the U.S. has increased it’s imports every year from 2005 on. Many of the farm raised tilapia are grown in the notoriously polluted areas of China’s Guangdong province.

Recently, the U.S. Agriculture Dept.’s Economic Research Service raised questions about Chinese safety standards for farm-raised fish. The report mentioned, “Fish are often raised in ponds where they feed on waste runoff from poultry and livestock”. It has also been noted that Chinese farmers save money on the cost of raising these fish by dumping animal wastes into the ponds which cause algae to grow and serve as their food source. And don’t forget all of the problems with many other products made in China- toys with lead and toothpastes found to contain diethylene glycol, a poisonous chemical. Even more alarming is the usage of carbon monoxide which preserves the color of the fish and can make the fish appear fresher than it is! If you read the label of many brands, the only two ingredients listed are “Tilapia” and Carbon Monoxide (To Retain Natural Color)”.

From a nutritional standpoint, tilapia fails miserably when stacked against salmon, tuna, mackerel, sardines and other marine sources of the omega-3 oils which have been shown to have positive effects on cardiovascular disease, blood pressure, stroke, inflammation, and brain health. Tilapia’s flesh doesn’t contain any. And the reason? If the producers used sources of omega-3 enriched meal to feed the tilapia to make them more of a viable healthy food source, the price would increase and that unfortunately is one of the reasons why this fish has become an American dietary staple. So it always comes down to the idea of how much of a price do you pay for eating unhealthy foods to save some money in the long run.

In my office we have a saying, “If you don’t take time for your HEALTH, then you will have to take time for your illness”. Educate yourself by becoming a label reader and asking the question: “Is this really good to put in my body?” and if you can’t pronounce an ingredient and the number of ingredients are many, it’s probably best to avoid.

Strive to be healthier!

Dr. Michael L. Smith specializes in functional medicine, nutrition and chiropractic healthcare

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