Why aren't we eating more seafood?
Thursday,15 September,2011 08:10:18
The latest figures for the consumption of seafood by Americans are available. U.S. consumption of all seafood was flat, even having dropped a little (although I question the ability of reports of this nature to accurately track a 1percent change) compared with the prior year, 2009. There has been a shift towards increased consumption of chicken compared with beef in the last decade, but the consumption of seafood still lags far behind. Chicken consumption per capita is around 80 pounds, beef around 60 pounds, pork around 50 pounds and seafood a paltry 15.8 pounds, which is right about where turkey is. Americans consume about the same amount of turkey per year as they do seafood. Why aren’t we consuming more seafood?
Certainly many consumers are aware of the health benefits of a diet high in seafood, especially fish with high levels of certain essential fatty acids. Solid research has shown that as little as 3 ounces of (farmed) salmon or six ounces of mackerel eaten per week reduces the risk of death from coronary heart disease by more than a third. Data also supports the observation that consumption of fish (or fish oil) reduces total mortality from all causes by 17 percent. Life expectancies in those countries in which seafood is a regular part of the diet are typically higher than in those where seafood is not consumed at high levels (although there are other factors as well).Iti is widely understood, based on solid science, that eating seafood regularly is an essential element of a healthy diet.
Why we are not consuming more seafood is a result of many factors and is typical of matters of this ilk, is the subject of some debate. Personally I believe that one of the largest contributing factors is price. We import almost 90 percent of the seafood we consume. Domestic production is relatively small compared to demand and we rely heavily on imports. Despite much publicized discourse regarding the need for the US to change this, there are very strong “influences” that do not want to see this happening in a manner that ensures that we will have access to high quality, reasonably priced American produced farmed seafood. It is a complex issue and the objections come from many different parties. The costs of getting permits, generating environmental impact statements and the challenges of trying to compete against commodity priced products originating in less costly third world countries are all factors.
Seafood is high priced in general in the US and we do not typically consume the lower priced species that are widely consumed elsewhere, such as carp. Of course a can of tuna fish for USD 1.50 for a 4-6 oz can is not particularly expensive. But then again tuna feeds at the top of the food chain and bioaccumulation of a variety of less than desirable chemicals is an element of the risk associated with eating canned tuna. Bear in mind that the production and consumption of any food comes with a cost. Whether that price is environmental (few could argue that the dead zones we are increasingly seeing around the world are not related to some degree to agricultural practices), economical (given high rates of unemployment and a floundering economy few people want to spend any more than they have to on food and there certainly is less money to be spent) or some other impact (and there are many more), it is a truth. Consumers have to understand that the risks are outweighed, for the most part, by the benefits and that like all human activities whether the fish is derived from hunting or farming, it is not a perfect process. Concerns about contaminants in farmed fish are unfortunately at the center a great deal of negative publicity that functions to the detriment of public health. While the risks do exist (and are species and source dependent) the benefits of regular consumption far outweigh the risks. Perception is however unfortunately all too often what is deemed as real and until pro-seafood organizations succeed in their efforts to educate the public that seafood is essential for optimum health and the producers devise creative ways to drive the price down, I do not believe that we will not see an increase in the consumption of seafood in the U.S.
The bottom line is that as long as consumers have to spend more money for seafood than they would for less costly proteins they will be reluctant to eat more seafood. Typically, when one considers what farmers are earning their margins are often the smallest of those in the chain that brings the food from the farm to our forks. Everybody in-between makes money on it (I am not saying that they should not). Unfortunately, the end result is a product that is not sufficiently attractive enough to the consumer for the higher price to be outweighed by the advantages. Vertical integration becomes a critical element of any plan to increase farm margins and reduce overall costs. It is widely accepted that the only way that we will see significant increases in the consumption of seafood in the US is if the prices come down to the consumer. The path to this is a convoluted one and not achievable in all cases. Too many people have vested interests in not allowing the price to come down.
Larger vertically integrated producers will need to experiment with paradigms that allow them to sell to the consumer with fewer people in the middle. Education must continue and condemnations of farming and/or fishing practices from organizations that are opposed to aquaculture need to be addressed, whether they are science based or not and every effort made to drive an increase in demand by ensuring access to high quality lower priced seafood.
I for one am doing my share. I figure that I easily eat more than 40 pounds of seafood per year. I will admit though that a lot of this is from a can, as tuna sandwiches are a staple of my diet. Living in the Seattle area I also avail myself of wild salmon when I can although it is not always priced attractively and my experience with local grocery stores has been that they are more than willing to sell fish that should be thrown out. I am sold on the health benefits although I would eat a lot more seafood if it was not so outrageously priced.