Your fish now comes with a COOL passport
Amid the excitement surrounding St. Patrick’s Day this week, a long-awaited milestone quietly took effect on March 16, but was celebrated widely by food safety advocates. Federal “Country of Origin Labeling” legislation (or, “COOL,” in hip DC-parlance) mandated by the Farm Bill finally took effect, despite longstanding protests from the meat industry.
Although the law leaves a lot up to the discretion of food producers and marketers, it does require that unprocessed food items be labeled with their country of origin. So for example, it would cover fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables, ground beef/whole muscle meat, fish, fresh poultry and nuts…but not foods like bagged spinach, bacon, or frozen chicken nuggets. In addition, seafood must be labeled by its method of production as either farm-raised or wild-caught.
So what should we make of this?
Well, for starters, it will make things easier for aspiring locavores. You’ll know where all of your produce, meat and fish come from, which can help guide your choices if you’re trying to eat more locally. (Though honestly, most of us didn’t need federally-mandated labeling legislation to know that our bananas aren’t from around these here parts, or that those big red tomatoes available in the dead of winter weren’t grown nearby.)
Personally, I’m most interested in this legislation as it pertains to fish.
Did anyone else catch that article that the New York Times did on the Chinese fish industry back in 2007? It highlighted a (growing) problem of banned carcinogens, illegal antibiotics, pesticides (including DDT) and additives that were showing up in imported Chinese seafood, which according to the article comprised 22% of all seafood sold in the US. (My guess is that percentage is even higher now.) And while the FDA does routinely inspect samples, it only ends up checking a measly 1% of all imported food, meaning that unsafe fish are almost certainly finding their way into our food supply and onto our plates. The problem up until now has been that there was no way to know where your fish came from, unless your supermarket volunteered the information.
Of course, labeling only helps us make better decisions about what to buy if it’s truthful. (Too bad they didn’t name the legislation the Truthful Country of Origin Labeling Act, but I guess T’COOL wasn’t as catchy.) In another brilliant fish-related expose, the New York Times sent samples of fish, purchased at various New York stores and labeled as “wild,” to an independent laboratory to verify whether they were indeed wild. (About 90% of all salmon in the U.S. is farm-raised, which explains why wild salmon routinely costs 3-5x more than farmed.) The analysis found that only ONE of the eight samples tested positive for being wild; all of the others were overpriced, farm-raised imposters. And they were being sold by some pretty snooty places, I may add.
Sigh. As if the fish counter wasn’t already fraught with enough anxiety about what to purchase, between the mercury and the PCBs…. and now the added layer of wild-caught vs. farmed, and countries of origin to contend with. What’s an omega-3 loving pescatarian to do?
Well, there are no easy answers. But here are some things that I do.
- At the risk of being sued by the Chinese fish industry, I will say that I don’t buy any seafood imported from China. Period. It’s never been a problem at Whole Foods, but I’ve passed on the tantalizingly-inexpensive fish sold at BJ’s wholesale club for precisely this reason. Also, be sure to check the label on frozen seafood–like shrimp and scallops–as these often come from Asia and may possibly come from China specifically.
- Download the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch guide, which combines a multitude of factors, including safety AND sustainability, in recommending the best seafood picks. (The guides are even customized by geographic region). The list gets updated frequently, as trends in overfishing change fish stocks dramatically, so make sure to check back every few months for an updated list. Alternatively, you can download it to your iPhone so that its always with you when shopping. You may be surprised to see that there are plenty of farmed fish varieties that make the cut as far as safety and sustainability go, so wild isn’t automatically the best choice in all circumstances.
- Consider canned fish. Canned salmon is almost universally wild-caught, low in mercury/PCBs and usually Alaskan. As for tuna, look for products labeled “troll,” “hook and line” or “pole” caught, as they are the most sustainable. (If you can afford to spend $5 on a can of tuna during a recession, then check out a brand called American Tuna and support their sustainable fishing practices. Your financial investment will buy you the peace of mind that your tuna comes from the US, and was caught using very sustainable practices.) And sardines are making a huge comeback these days, with stores offering fancy, European-style versions bathed in swanky sauces…. and chefs embracing them for sandwiches and salads. Today’s sardines are not the tinny, unsexy cast-offs you may recall. They are worth a second look (and taste!)
- See what your farmer’s market has to offer. Here in New York, there are vendors who sell locally-caught fish and scallops at the Union Square greenmarket, for prices on par with what’s being sold right across the street in Whole Foods.
So next time you’re in the supermarket, check out the new labels across the store and let me know what you make of it all; I’d love to know whether they change your buying habits in any way!Did you like this? If so, please bookmark it, RSS feed.