With the price of fresh fish and seafoods skyrocketing, many consumers are turning to a relatively inexpensive freshwater fish known as Swai. Typically sold as fillets, the fish has a sweet and mild taste that most people find appealing. The fillets can also be cooked in a variety of ways. At only costs about $2 per pound USD, it fits just about anyone’s budget but there are serious problems with the fish that consumers need to know about which could eventually cause long term health problems or even death.
What is Swai Fish?
Swai (Pangasianodon hypophthalmus) is a white freshwater fish that is found in Vietnamese rivers. However, in the last 20 years, it has become a common farm-raised fish and a large source of income for the Vietnamese. The product is not only commonly sold in most Asian countries but it is a significant worldwide export.
Swai is a Type of Catfish
It is generally accepted that swai is a type of catfish. It is often referred to as the Vietnamese catfish, basa, and iridescent shark. However, it is not related in any way to sharks or basa. Many people mistakenly believe there is a relationship because of the sharklike features of the fish. It resembles a shark with dark gray or black coloration and iridescent highlights.
A member of the catfish family, it can grow up to four feet in length and weigh 100 pounds.. In its wild habitat, it is highly migratory. A tropical fish, it lives in the Mekong River and Chao Phraya River where it prefers the deep waters. After monsoon season, the females and males enter more shallow waters to raise their young.
Farmers raise the catfish in muddy ponds where they readily breed. Most of the breeding ponds are nothing more than squalor filled with bacteria, toxins, viruses, and other contaminants. Unfortunately, it is all too common for the farmer to also inject the fish with hormones to encourage fast sexual maturity for procreation and rapid growth so it can be marketed and exported at a rapid rate to fill quotas and maximize profit.
Wild Caught Versus Farm Raised Swai
Unfortunately, even wild caught Swai poses a significant health risk. The Mekong River is heavily polluted. Up and down its shoreline, factories spew toxic chemicals into its water. It is for this reason that wild caught specimens are far more dangerous than farm raised. Consumers throughout much of Asia are encouraged to know exactly where the fish they purchase comes from and if the source is the river then it should be avoided. Although, the farms are not much better.
History of the Vietnamese Catfish
In the early 2000s, the fish started to be widely sold to American consumers as a type of catfish. Many shoppers mistakenly believed that they were buying American catfish which increased sales considerably. In an effort to enlighten the consumers and also to appease the American fishing industry which was suffering severe financial losses from the arrival of the foreign catfish, Congress passed a law in 2003 that stated only American catfish could be legally called catfish. Also, Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi made the importation and sale of the Vietnamese competitor illegal.
Dangers of Swai
Imported foods do not have to pass the same stringent rules, inspections, and regulations of the United States Food and Drug Administration imparts on the American industry. This means that the imported Asian fish may not be safe for human consumption.
Here are just 5 of the top dangers faced by American consumers purchasing the imported catfish:
- Pollution: Fish farming is big in Asia but the water that is used tends to be excessively dirty due to overcrowded conditions. This presents a serious problem because the meat can quickly become contaminated. The contaminants are then transferred to the person who consumes the white meat fillets.
- Antibiotics: In the United States most antibiotics are ban because they can build up in the meat. However, in Asia that is not the case. The antibiotic-laden fish presents significant long-term dangers to the consumers, especially children.
- Mercury: The meat often contains high levels of dangerous mercury.
- Toxins: Like most catfish, they are not particular about what they eat so this enables the farmers to feed them sub-par food. It is not uncommon for the Vietnamese farmers to gather up rotting foods from local restaurants or even feed waste from other farms. This causes a buildup of the toxins in the meat which is then transferred to the consumer upon ingestion.
- Drugs, Pesticides, and Chemical Residues: In 2016, a massive recall of 26,000 pounds of Sea Queen brand Swai fillets that were imported from Vietnam into the United States was issued by the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service. It was found to contain high levels of harmful residue which could cause serious health consequences or even death, according to the USDA recall notice. The fillets had already made it on store shelves at numerous ALDI markets but the merchandise was removed and shoppers were encouraged to return the products or immediately discard them. Luckily, no one fell ill from consuming the fillets.
Readily Available Worldwide
Swai can still be found on store shelves in 47 states in the USA where it is still readily purchased by consumers who simply view it as a nutritious, cheap, heart-healthy catfish option. It also remains a key food source for locals across most of Asia. Russia is the largest importer of Swai followed by Spain and Panga.
Swai is Dangerous and Can Be Fatal
The risks associated with consuming Swai are high. Even if a person does not immediately become sick the buildup of toxins and chemicals in a body can lead to long-term health problems. Consumers must be made aware of the possible risks associated with catfish so they can make an educated decision on if the product is worth the risk. Unfortunately, many remain unaware of the dangers and continue to purchase the fish thinking that they are making a healthy food choice.