“TILAPIA EAT POOP” (really?)

tilapia-in-round-003.jpg

One of the most common searches that lead people to this blog, I kid you not, is “TILAPIA EAT POOP.”

I have eaten tilapia fish gladly, week after week. But I’ve seen this particular search enough times that I began to wonder. Do they? If I eat tilapia, does that mean that I eat poop, too? I decided to do some research, so that I can answer, once and for all, the question that has (inexplicably) been on everyone’s minds:DO TILAPIA REALLY EAT POOP?

First, some tilapia facts: Tilapia are now the fifth-most consumed fish in the U.S. It’s a remarkably “unfishy” fish, and it tends to taste like whatever sauce it’s served with. This mild flavor, combined with its low price point, probably explains why consumers love it, and chefs hate it.

Environmentalists encourage eating tilapia. Oceans Alive ranks U.S. farmed tilapia as an “eco-best” choice, meaning they don’t damage the environment (through pollution of waters, reduction of biodiversity, overharvesting, etc.). So does National Geographic’s Green Guide.

Tilapia are also lower in contaminants than other fish. Growseed says that: “as concerns about mercury contamination in fish increases, pond-raised tilapia are a safe toxin-free food because they do not build up environmental pollutants in their meat. That’s why Co-op America places tilapia squarely on the “safe” list.

But…um…do they actually eat poop?I have googled and googled and googled, in search of answers to this question. It appears to me that the TILAPIA EAT POOP folks were ultimately informed (directly or indirectly) by the Vomit Island episode of the Dirty Jobs television show, on the Discovery Channel. In this episode, tilapia are used to clean the poo that has accumulated in the tanks of hybrid striped bass. Fear not, though: not all farmed tilapia are fed on waste matter. For a little reassurance, check out this guy in Maine.

How about in their natural environment? You won’t find many wild tilapia in your grocery store, but in their natural enviornment, they thrive on wide variety of natural food organisms, including plankton, succulent green leaves, benthic organisms, aquatic invertebrates, larval fish, detritus and decomposing organic matter. The key word there is “detritus,” which includes all kinds of things, including, most likely, fish waste.

So, yes. The answer, to all you TILAPIA EAT POOP Googlers, is “sometimes.” Which maybe should turn me off to eating tilappia, but the more I researched, the more I thought about other things that are fed on disgusting things (like free-range chickens, which eat the bugs out of cow poop; or mushrooms, which feed off decay; or really any kind of food that takes organic fertilizer…including the tomatoes and greenbeans and carrots I myself grew last summer, which were fertilized with composted manure from a nearby horse farm…).

Waste is consumed in order to support new life: that’s what happens in an ecosystem. I’d prefer that any day to ground meat that’s covered in actual poop.

That said, the key to tilapia appears to be finding a quality source. Given that they can thrive in low quality water, you’ll want to be careful about not getting tilapia from a water source that is too low quality. The Monterey Bay Aquarium (experts in this kind of thing) says that farmed tilapia from U.S. should be a first choice; and farmed tilapia from China should be a last choice. Indeed, earlier this year, the FDA rejected a bunch of tilapia (and other seafood) imported from China, due to concerns about recurrent contamination from carcinogens and antibiotics. Kevin Fitsimmons, Professor of Environmental Science at the University of Arizona, disagrees, however, claiming that “the Chinese actually do a pretty good job.” (I’m not sure if Dr. Fitsimmons read this, but I’d be curious about his reaction).

Anyhow, I’ll still eat tilapia, but now, more than ever before, I’d like to know where my tilapia is coming from. Fortunately, country of origin labeling is mandated for fish (though not yet for all foods). Don’t see this labeling on fish in your grocery store? Demand it. It’s required by law.

TILAPIA EAT POOP folks, I hope this is the answer you’ve been looking for.

Next up: a tilapia recipe that takes a basically healthful fish and drowns it in butter (but hey, my kids loved it!).

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56 Responses to ““TILAPIA EAT POOP” (really?)”


  1. 1 Mir October 1, 2007 at 5:08 pm

    We loves us some tilapia, here. I happened to find wild-caught on sale at the supermarket last week and I thought it tasted a bit better, but apparently I am just suggestible, as my husband and children said they tasted no difference. Oh well.

    Can’t wait to see your recipe. My go-to tilapia recipes are also probably unhealthful. Whoops.

  2. 2 Kai October 1, 2007 at 5:52 pm

    OH my! A disclaimer up top not to read this post while eating lunch would have been helpful!! Thank goodness I wasn’t eating fish.

    Looking forward to the recipe. Now that the weather is getting cooler again I’m more inclined to cook.

  3. 3 Erika October 18, 2007 at 2:23 am

    thank you for this information <3

  4. 4 greg November 2, 2007 at 2:07 pm

    I seem to be able to tell when that episode of Dirty Jobs re-runs by watching this post jump to the top of your popular list. Heh.

  5. 5 kam November 2, 2007 at 11:57 pm

    Yep, I’m here because I watched Dirtiest Jobs last night. Good info.

  6. 6 Dr. Kevin Fitzsimmons November 21, 2007 at 5:15 am

    Hi,

    Just read your article and thought I should offer my reaction. I think you offered a good explanation and correctly cited the Dirty Jobs episode. In nature tilapia do consume detritus which includes all kinds of decaying organic matter. Most of the nutritional value is actually the bacteria and fungus decomposing the organics. As you properly point out this is similar to organic fertilizer.

    A couple of minor points.

    Tilapia were NOT on the list of 5 fishes FDA placed on the China watch list. And actually no shipments were rejected, certain suppliers of the fish were forced to hold shipments in storage until they achieved three consecutive completely clean lab analyses. Even the “contaminated” shipments were considered safe for cunsumption.

    I visited two more farms and processing plants in China last week and will be posting photos at

    http://ag.arizona.edu/azaqua/aquaculture_images/China/tilapiachina.htm

    The plants are state of the art and have US and European certifications in place. I can assure you that farmed tilapia from China are much safer than virtually any wild caught fish in America.

    Finally, most chefs actually love to work with tilapia as they can show off their skill. It has only been in the last couple of years as the price came down that some chefs have turned up their noses. If you look back at all the publicity a few years ago all chefs raved about the mild flavor and ability to work with its “delicate” taste.

    Great work.

    Dr. Fitz

    • 7 Anne Smith March 19, 2010 at 12:45 pm

      I just bought a bag of talapia from Walmart. I did not pay any attention where the fish came from. Then my husband says be sure it doesn’t come from China. Well, guess what? It is from China. It says The Fishing Co. in Seattle, Wa. Now I am apprehensive about eating this fish. I can’t get that thought out of my mind that they possibly eat human waste. Any thoughts on this would help, otherwise I will have to throw the bag away and stop eating talapia, which by the way my whole family loves.

  7. 8 Melonie @ Workerette.com December 11, 2007 at 3:46 pm

    Okay, I came here on the same basic search – though mine was “what do tilapia eat”. *chuckle* This was after my husband came home last night and when I asked if he wanted me to make him some tilapia for lunch (for today, to take with him) he visibly gagged and said he’s off tilapia for a while since he’d found out they eat fecal matter. He’s not a fan of liver, either.

    Anywho – this actually brought to the forefront a concern I had about the tilapia I have been holding off on cooking for quite some time now. Usually our tilapia purchases are US raised and marketed, but a couple of months back we got a “great deal” on tilapia ($1.99 a pound, which came out to 4 fillets in a bag). However, when I got home and later read the bag to see what to set my oven at – the package was covered with typos and grammatical errors – and the fish was farmed in China. Now mind you, being from China would have set off warning bells anyway due to all the recalls at the time (and now even) BUT on top of the issue were the typos – a multitude of them. And the convenient “John 3:16″ notice on the bag – with no other comment as to why it’s there.

    Add to this that we are a military family, and the “cheap” fish was sold at the military commissary and the conspiracy theorist (normally well suppressed) in me started squawking and couldn’t cook the fish.

    I’m kinda glad my hubby is off tilapia now as it gave me a reason to bring up the issue of those particular fish without sounding like a hideous geek. Your post, especially the China comments – though Dr. Fitzsimmons gives a good rebuttal – reassures me that in this specific case – with these two bags of fish – throwing them out and “wasting” $4 was the better choice.

    Yes, that’s what I did last night. ;-)

    Long story long: my favorite recipe for tilapia is just like making a baked chicken breast – simply grind lemon-pepper into your baking dish, maybe spritz on a little Pam to ease sticking, and then place in the fish or chicken; then grind more lemon-pepper on top and bake (15 min for the fish, 30 for chicken or to temperature of 170 deg. on the breast meat). No butter involved, and still moist enough if you don’t overbake it.

  8. 9 DD January 6, 2008 at 12:25 am

    My google was “tilapia dirty” and it still brought me here! Not first result, but definitely the most informative of all. Thank you for your thorough research.

    Unfortunately, my husband WAS partially right about the tilapia being “dirty”. UGH.

  9. 10 Anna February 22, 2008 at 12:39 am

    Wouldn’t the “what tilapia eats” also apply to flounder, catfish, shrimp, crab, and other “bottom feeders/dwellers”?

  10. 11 the Mater February 26, 2008 at 3:39 pm

    Ali, can you answer Anna’s question about the overall eating habits of other bottom dwellers. I don’t get over here all that often and this discussion is really informative. Your ability to do this kind of research and write so well about food in general (plus sharing recipes!) boggles my mind, considering you have children to care for and other community commitments.

    If there were an OSCAR for best food blog, I’d vote for you!

    Keep up the good work.

  11. 12 lynn March 23, 2008 at 11:37 pm

    a great web site for moms & other folks making tough decisions. i just bught tilapia & have no idea of which country it originates. it’s really challenging these days when we have to rely on professionals who put so much more into the monetary than common human repect & safety. and i felt this way long before i became a mom. nothing is more precious than human lives!!!!!!

  12. 13 lynn March 23, 2008 at 11:38 pm

    yes, i see my spelling errors! my heart & brain are in the right place even if my spell check isn’t!!

  13. 14 Bob & Gayle July 27, 2008 at 1:37 am

    I love(d) tilapia until I saw the Dirty Job show which really caused me to reconsider. Having grown up in a farming community and also toured the Malorganite(?) factory in Milwaukee where they convert city sewage into relatively odorless sterile lawn fertilizer, I don’t know why I got spooked over tilapia eating fecal waste. Anyway, thanks for your informative answer to the ‘poop’ question. I WILL eat tilapia again and ponder the ‘full circle’ analagy.

    P.S. Did not spell check………..

  14. 15 natalie July 28, 2008 at 10:22 pm

    my query was “tilapia dirty jobs” because i am trying to determine whether or not tilapia farms could be used in sustainable communities to consume waste…

    thank you for the post! very helpful

  15. 16 Mom September 11, 2008 at 4:15 am

    Another reason I’m a vegetarian.

  16. 17 Cella September 12, 2008 at 12:25 am

    Thank you soooo much for your research. I love fish and I love eating tilapia because it’s cheap and easier to find. I was born and raised on an island so fish is a necessity that I cannot do without especially living in the rocky mountain area where its hard to find fish period! I was told by a co-worker that indeed they do eat waste which is why I decided to google for facts. I will continue to eat tilapia because you are right, we don’t really know what anyone’s eating anymore. LOL!

  17. 18 frank October 23, 2008 at 2:28 pm

    but you forget to add farmed raised tilapia out of Ecuador,Costa Rica, Honduras, Brazil,Columbia and even Mexico that is delivered into the U.S. daily..the only stuff coming out of china is Gased Izumidai aka Tilapia out of china that has been smoked with carbon monoxide.. hence the bright red blood line… give me some 2-3 day old stuff out of Ecuador any day…

  18. 19 Ty Watts October 26, 2008 at 5:08 pm

    Just to clarify something. Tilapia may eat poop but they are not “bottom dwellers” like CatFish. Tilapia are opportunistic omnivours, so if they are hungrey they will bottom feed but in most enivornments they are eating algae and plankton.

  19. 20 Kinky December 22, 2008 at 1:08 pm

    A friend of mine brought over 2 boxes of Tilapia raised in China. I have been listening and reading the reports of the Tilapia from China and I am very leary about cooking the fish. I still feel lost as to whether is is safe to consume it or not. More insight into this would be helpful.

  20. 21 Viv December 30, 2008 at 5:36 pm

    SAVE THIS | EMAIL THIS | Close

    Posted on Thu, Jul. 10, 2008

    Tilapia bad for your health?
    By Faye Flam

    INQUIRER STAFF WRITER

    Consider the latest food to hit the danger list: farm-raised tilapia.
    Researchers from Wake Forest University Medical Center say you’re better of with a big juicy burger than with this mild, low-fat fish, which turns out to be high in an unhealthful form of fat called long-chain omega-6 fatty acids, especially when it’s produced by fish farms.

    Long chain omega-6 fats promote inflammation associated with heart disease, asthma, some cancers, Alzheimer’s disease, stroke and other conditions, said Floyd Chilton, professor of physiology at Wake Forest and head of the study.

    Is there anything left that the experts say we should eat? Not much, said Chilton, thanks to a large-scale corruption of the American food chain with cheap corn feed. That has altered the composition of fats found in beef, chicken, eggs and farmed fish, such as catfish and tilapia.

    In tests, the researchers found that grain-fed tilapia concentrated even more of the worst fats than did grain-fed beef.

    One animal-based food that Chilton recommends is wild-caught fish, such as salmon and sardines, since they contain inflammation-fighting omega-3 fatty acids. Unfortunately, he said, public health officials have been wrongly telling people to get more of this important nutrient by eating more fish without specifying what kind.

  21. 22 lizer February 25, 2009 at 11:15 pm

    Something to do with their former use in the septic systems of submarines…just what I heard.

    We’ll probably go back to eating it.

  22. 23 harlan February 28, 2009 at 10:58 pm

    everyone thinks tilapia is a great fish but it really discustes me about there back round! So for al of you people who love Tilapia good luck to you!

  23. 24 James March 11, 2009 at 1:19 am

    Just a note. Farmed raised Tilipia is not on the safe to eat list as you suggest. Only wild Tilipia is “safe to eat”, which is difficult to find.

  24. 25 lee-anne March 13, 2009 at 3:12 pm

    When the city zoo built a huge new hippo enclosure, they filled the swimming pool with tilapia to keep it clean. Have you ever seen a hippo poop? The tail is like a diffuser that sprays it everywhere. Those fish have gotten BIG and I can’t bring myself to do it. Thanks for the research. Very interesting.

  25. 27 helmi March 24, 2009 at 5:38 am

    thanks for informations

  26. 28 kevin June 5, 2009 at 10:27 pm

    Who uses the term “poop” when discussing something like this? A 12 year old?

  27. 29 Ali June 5, 2009 at 10:38 pm

    Kevin – apparently thousands and thousands of people do. Last I checked, this post had almost 23,000 views, and most of them come from that very Google search. I know, insane, right?

  28. 30 Zac August 16, 2009 at 8:33 am

    By the way, many Zoos use Tilapia in their Hippo habitats to keep the pools clean from Hippo poo…

  29. 31 Frank August 24, 2009 at 6:22 pm

    well this goes to show that some of you are in the same

    level on the food chain crap eating fish for crap eating people
    or crap eats crap. ha ha ha ha ha ha eat more crap….crap

  30. 32 HandyAndy September 6, 2009 at 2:50 pm

    The one point you magnaged to glaze over was those poo eating TILAPIA on the dirty jobs episode were filmed on a fish farm and then carted off to a fish market. So buying farm raised TILAPIA you are just as likley to get those brown lipped buggers. For me I will stick to swordfish and yellowtail Thank You Very Much!

  31. 34 amanda October 5, 2009 at 8:36 pm

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. I enjoy tilapia, and my family won’t even try it do to “Dirty Jobs”. NOW I have info to show them it is good and “safe listed”. I would like to know how bad is Red Lobster’s fish (do they really support the slaughter of animals so they can make a buck?), I read they get there fish from Canada and that is where they kill seals to keep them from eating the fish. thank you

  32. 35 Cal in Oklahoma October 22, 2009 at 11:42 am

    Great info. Thoroughly researched. Thanks for doing all the work for me. Tilapia has been, and will continue to be, on my menu.

  33. 36 Cal in Oklahoma October 22, 2009 at 11:46 am

    Great info. Thoroughly researched. Tilapia has been, and will continue to be, on my menu.

  34. 37 Robin November 3, 2009 at 8:32 pm

    Loved your article! And I actually WAS eating Talapia while reading it. Didn’t affect the taste one bit! I also love catfish, which truly ARE bottom feeders!

  35. 38 Richy November 11, 2009 at 9:06 pm

    OMG. This subject brings back memories of why I do not eat Tilapia and never would eat Tilapia. Growing up in Hawaii as a Military brat and living on Pearl City area Military Housing from 1963 – 1973 I saw raw untreated sewage dumped into Pearl Harbor through sewer pipe . Guess what is at the end of the pipe where the sewage flowed into Pearl? Tilapia!! Thousands of Tilapia fighting over their chance to devour the poo. Hawaiians nicknamed the Tilapia, “Trash Fish.” In 1974 Pearl City Military Housing finally installed a sewer treatment plant and stopped pumping raw sewage into Pearl but I will never forget how the locals would gig the trash fish by walking to the end of the sewer pipe waiting for the Tilapia to go for the poo.

  36. 39 Mr Tilapia December 4, 2009 at 10:03 am

    Tilapia is a fantastic fish and the answer to feeding the masses as well as the most sophisticated of our societies, President Obama, Opra Winfrey included have eaten Tilapia. Growing up in Africa and being passionate about Tilapia Farming, which by the way can be grown 100% organically, I have always believed in the commercial, environmental and social benefits of Tilapia Farming. Remember it is a warm water fish 29 Deg C water temp best for optimum growth. There is nothing tastier than fresh Tilapia caught on a swealtering African Summers day from a beautiful river – Zambezi or a Lake – Lake Kariba. To those of you who who are not so fortunate most farmed fish are fed pelleted diets Tilapia in the wild eat mainly algae, plants and are macrophage feeders.

  37. 40 fishforever December 5, 2009 at 2:32 am

    Hello-

    1. Tilapia are farmed fish. They are never wild. If they are it is because the consumers who advocate and choose them in the market are inadvertently promoting their propagation.

    2. They are invasive species. They do not belong in our ecosystems. Please read up on what invasive species can do so an ecosystem.

    3. You are screwing fishing families with every pound you buy. Do not be surprised that the same people that advocate their consumption realize they are cheap and quickly raised. This is the primary reason for their popularity. You are eating corporate fish. There is nothing noble or traditional in their harvest.

    4. Their cultivation is filthy. Their effluent is a major cause for environmental concern. So are the hormones and antibiotics they are fed.

    5. You are not buying, paying attention to, or caring for the resources we are trying to sustain. Don’t screw up salmon and mackeral populations and move on… FIX IT!!! Pay attention, vote and do not ignore the ESA guidlines for native fish populations.

    PAY ATTENTION AMERICA!!!

  38. 41 CHRIST WASHINGTON December 6, 2009 at 1:16 am

    THIS IS THE FIRST TIME I HAVE EVER ATE THIS FISH TILAPIA
    IT REALLY IS A GOOD TASTING FISH I AM NOT CONCERN ABOUT WHAT
    IT EAT BECAUSE IT IS NOT AGAINST ONE OF GOD HEALTH LAWS.

    • 42 CuriousGeorge April 22, 2010 at 5:26 pm

      Just curious, do you eat pork? It’s all against the “GOD HEALTH LAWS” hehehe. I’m assuming you’re a Christian or similar.

      I too watched the episode in question about a few month ago (rerun I understand now). Mike said the fish eat other fish’s poop… I for the moment walked away from Tilapia, but then again more thought and research later, decided the chance I’ve eaten fish before that may be worse than this or the chance that my particular encounter with one that was fed solely excrement is probably not that high. That and the fact that they DO eat other “non-yucky” food such as other sea creatures etc.

      But back to my original statement, I find it funny that people are getting excited over the poop eating fish, yet the same people most likely never give it one thought when they happily consume bacon and eggs, ham and cheese, or worse chittens or other pork dishes. Pigs don’t sweat, retain 90% of their uric acid in their bodies, and oh yah, are omnivores, and eat their own feces with indifference. Hehehe. The stuff people will ignore… ;)

  39. 44 ken January 27, 2010 at 2:25 pm

    Here’s the Dirty Jobs episode for the curious:
    http://odeo.com/episodes/23122097-Dirty-Jobs-Fish-Waste-Water

    I wonder where we get Tilapia in the northeast? That show was filmed in CA, so I’m sure people in LA get them ;-)

  40. 45 Amberjax February 19, 2010 at 11:02 pm

    Do they eat their own poop?

  41. 46 Gail March 5, 2010 at 10:40 pm

    I got into this website, about Tilapia,if it eats poop or not, all I was looking for if it could be subistuted for Cod in a fish chowder I am thinking about making.
    But consider what the pigs and hogs eat, maybe you won’t feel so bad about the tilapia fish!

  42. 47 ElvisMoab March 12, 2010 at 2:19 pm

    I tried Tilapia twice. Never again. it is THE most bland fish I’ve ever tried. Why bother when it has no flavor and like Fishforever previously stated, this species has no redeeming value as food.

  43. 48 allie h April 1, 2010 at 3:47 pm

    I enjoyed this website and the replies. I’m embarrassed to admit that I did not know that tilapia (and other foods) from China was not safe. My sister send me an e-mail yesterday about the dead chickens from China (cbc marketplace release) and I took it a step further and checked on shrimp and fish. I went through my freezer and tossed out all my seafood that came from China. Now I’m wary about seafood from restaurants.

    My question is this: Will China ever turn their reputation around and become a country that is a better supplier of food for the world.

  44. 49 M.Nimal Senarath Perera April 29, 2010 at 8:27 am

    I am very interesting for TILAPIYA fish. So I want to be a caned this fish p/s send me a some imprmation .

  45. 50 patrick May 6, 2010 at 12:39 pm

    Tilapia is a wonderful fish, totally healthy, and the Chinese are farming all fish to the highest standards in the world. Eat with confidence, reject wild caught fish, especially trawled, to save the natural world! These reports are scare tactics to preserve the undefendable status quo.

  46. 52 Majisafi June 15, 2010 at 9:09 pm

    I raised Tilapia in Africa for three years. We would build a compost cage in the corner of each large pond and fill it with various types of manure to fertilize the pond water. The Tilapia ate the algae growing in the water. Yes, they ate the poop too. So, Tilapia love poop.

  47. 53 Gemini420 June 20, 2010 at 5:12 pm

    A lot of the things that we eat feed on ‘poop’.

    If you eat vegetables, it is likely that cow poop is in that organic fertilizer, compost or potting soil mix.

    Research what a metabolism is, and the biology/chemistry of metabolic reactions.

    Living organisms metabolize their food (at a molecular level) and then uses those broken down molecular ingredients to build new molecules (proteins, fat molecules, etc.) for their own growing bodies.

    Tilapia can eat plants, algae, plankton or decomposing detritus (which are low on the food chain), but can also eat higher level insects, smaller fish, worms, etc.

    This is why Tilapia are a good food source, they are low on the food chain and have a highly efficient metabolism.

  48. 54 Richy June 29, 2010 at 5:28 pm

    James
    You don’t know what you’re talking about. Fish can tolerate different conditions … However; some fish can live in both saltwater and freshwater especially the Tilapia. Tilapia’s are found in Pearl Harbor which is saltwater not freshwater although freshwater does run off from the mountains. Pearl Harbor is polluted but the Tilapia are in abundance there especially in front of the sewer pipes where raw poop is consumed by these schools of Tilapia in these wild waves of feeding frenzies. Ask any local fisherman at the Pearl City pier, “Are Tilapia biting?” They will quickly point at the large sewer pipe about 200 yards away where you can see the frantic splashing of Tilapia fighting over the poop!

  49. 55 Susan Ashton August 10, 2010 at 6:34 pm

    Hello and thanks for the grat info. What about eating the tilapia from the five acre pond we have out back here in Okeechobee, Florida? Do you think it would be safe?


  1. 1 No-good soup, no-good tilapia, no-good beef, and quite good sculpture « The Cleaner Plate Club Trackback on July 16, 2008 at 3:19 pm
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