Supermarkets may be convenient, but they just aren’t the best place to shop for meat. And they may not be the best place to purchase seafood, either. Buy it from a reputable fishmonger if possible. If you don’t live near a fishmonger, however, the supermarket seafood is probably safe.
We simply want to raise your awareness of a few factors that might influence your buying choices. We understand if you have no other option than to buy your fish at the supermarket; not everyone lives a short distance from a full-on fish market with knowledgeable fishmongers at the ready. The best consumer is an educated one, and when it comes to seafood, it pays to be educated. Do some research into the fish you’re buying, and make your decisions based on what’s sustainable, how it’s caught or farmed, where it’s from, and how fresh it is.
If these more sustainable, selective seafood options are outside of your price range, however, don’t let this article scare you off from buying supermarket fish! Seafood such as fish and shellfish offer protein, micronutrients, and other health benefits. The real risks of buying supermarket seafood are minimal at best.
We’re not talking about supermarkets like Whole Foods or independent retailers with full seafood counters; those are usually just as reputable as a fish market. We’re talking about supermarkets where all the meat and seafood are on Styrofoam trays wrapped in cellophane, labeled with as few details as legally required. At some supermarkets, you’re left completely to your own devices as to which fish to purchase, and even though the fish may look fresh, there’s a lot more going on below the surface.
The USDA has not set organic standards for farmed fish, but you still might see the “organic” label on some imported salmon, cod, tilapia, and shrimp (except in California, where organic-labeled fish is banned until U.S. standards are set). Even though these are still preferable to conventional farmed fish, they may still be grown in open net pens (which can pollute surrounding waters), they still may have been dosed with chemicals used to control parasites, and they may still be fed contaminated seafood byproducts.
According to the Animal Welfare Institute, many fish are kept in overcrowded conditions. Additionally, many fish farms “can severely damage ecosystems by introducing diseases, pollutants, and invasive species,” the organization claims.
According to a study by Oceana, a leading nonprofit in ocean preservation, supermarket seafood is occasionally mislabeled. Eighteen percent of the grocery stores they tested were selling mislabeled seafood products. However, a much lower percentage of seafood is likely ever actually mislabeled. The most commonly mislabeled fish include Chilean sea bass (replaced by Antarctic toothfish), Pacific cod (replaced by pangasius), wild salmon (replaced by farm-raised salmon), and red snapper (replaced by a number of white fish).
Slave labor is a real issue in the Southeast Asian seafood industry, so much so that Costco was sued in 2015 for selling slave-harvested shrimp. A yearlong investigation conducted by The Associated Press in 2015 found that Thai fishing companies were relying on the forced labor of hundreds of Burmese fishermen, most of whom worked up to 22 hours a day for little or no pay, to meet the global demand for seafood.
The U.S. was found to be the leading consumer of seafood imported from Thailand, largely because of the supply chains used by pet food brands like Fancy Feast and Meow Mix. Several major American retailers — including Whole Foods, Costco, and Walmart — were also found to use supply chains that relied on enslaved fishermen. Thankfully, a ban on slave-labor-dependent seafood was passed by Congress in 2016 and signed into law by President Obama.
When frozen and defrosted properly, frozen fish is essentially indecipherable from fresh and can last for quite a while in the freezer case. But once it’s defrosted, it will immediately begin to spoil, and it won’t stay fresh-tasting for nearly as long as would, say, beef. Even with the “sell by” date on the label, you have no way to know how long that fish has been defrosted for. Though most supermarkets are conscientious about the length of time they allow their fish to sit out, some grocery stores have been caught doing something fishy.
Some seafood, with the exception of wild caught varieties, is raised on antibiotics. There has been concern raised in the past about the use of these antibiotics; salmon, tilapia, and other popular fish are given antibiotics from the FDA’s short approved list. Asia’s shrimp farmers also rely heavily on antibiotics, many of which are banned in the U.S. We import about 86 percent of the fish we consume, so if you are choosing to avoid antibiotic-raised seafood, keep that in mind.
Your average fishmonger will have more than a dozen options of fish for you to purchase, but only a handful are available in some supermarket fish aisles (and rarely, if ever, whole fish).
If you purchase your fish at a reputable seafood shop, you have the added benefit of having a fishmonger to speak to. You can ask him or her when it arrived, how it was caught, if the fish is endangered, if there are more eco-friendly alternatives, and the best way to prepare it. If you buy it off the rack, you’re on your own.
When it comes down to it, salmon is a healthy, nutritious staple — and the conditions of its farming don’t pose a huge or immediate health risk. However, if you’re being particularly choosy about your fish choices, wild-caught salmon is almost always a smarter selection than farmed. According to the Environmental Working Group, farmed salmon accumulate more PCBs, a hazardous industrial products that can be found in some waters.
The tuna steaks at your supermarket counter have more mercury than a can of light tuna, surprisingly. Small doses of mercury will probably not have any significant effect on your health — but if you’re buying tuna every week, it’s something to keep in mind.
At a fishmonger, you can hold the fish before you buy it, checking for freshness via its texture and (most importantly) its smell. Saltwater fish should smell like the sea; freshwater fish should smell like nothing at all. When you buy packaged fish from the supermarket, you can’t smell it until you get home and unwrap it.
Smelly or not, some fish are healthier than others. That’s an aspect of your seafood selection you might not think to consider. We suggest checking this guide to the healthiest seafood before you enter the store.