Fish and health: It's complicated

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An employee of Pan Fish USA, a salmon An employee of Pan Fish USA, a salmon fish farm, holds up a farmed salmon on Bainbridge Island, Wash. (Jan. 13, 2004) Photo Credit: Getty Images

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Erica Marcus Erica Marcus (face disguised) is Newsday's food writer.

Marcus has covered food for Newsday since 1998.

A few weeks ago I wrote about the low-quality "tuna scrape" some restaurants were using in their spicy tuna rolls. Many readers were aghast at the news, some of them swearing off spicy tuna forever.

Certainly the product in question, Nakaochi Scrape, is unfit for consumption. Produced by Moon Marine USA in India, it was voluntarily recalled in April after it was linked, by the FDA and CDC, to 200 cases of salmonella in 21 states and the District of Columbia, including at least 12 on Long Island.

Stories about how Nakaochi Scrape is produced have a big "ick" factor:

It is meat scraped off the carcasses of tunas caught in warm waters and processed in less-than-state-of-the-art facilities. To increase its shelf life, this tuna (loins and steaks as well as the "scrape") is gassed with carbon monoxide.

Eating nose to tail

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But the idea of getting every last bit of meat from a tuna, and using those bits for recipes that call for chopped up tuna -- that's just old-fashioned kitchen thrift. Or, to use a very trendy name, "nose-to-tail eating." A sushi bar that chopped up its finest, most expensive tuna and then mixed it with spicy mayonnaise would be the equivalent of a steakhouse that ground its best porterhouse to make burgers. We expect burgers to be made with the scraps of chuck and sirloin and brisket that are left over once the steaks and roasts are butchered.

Of course, we also expect the burgers to be made from fresh, wholesome meat, and we expect no less from spicy tuna.

I also recently wrote about Athens Grill in Riverhead, whose chef-owner John Mantzopoulos has pledged to serve no farmed fish. I'm a fish lover who would be happy never to see another tilapia fillet or Atlantic salmon steak, and I love that Athens Grill is going the extra mile to find local and sustainably caught wild fish.

But just as I am uncomfortable damning all scraped tuna, I can't quite write off all farmed fish. To return to the steakhouse analogy: Can you imagine a steakhouse that eschewed all farmed livestock, pledging to serve only wild game?

First off, it's illegal to serve wild-caught game in the United States. (The deer and boar and rabbit and quail you occasionally see on restaurant menus have all been raised on farms.) But more importantly, hunting could never supply the current demand for meat. It's because the human demand for meat outstripped the hunted supply that people started raising livestock more than 10,000 years ago.

Right now, the oceans, rivers and lakes of the world cannot supply the world's demand for fish. If we want to continue to eat fish, we're looking at a future of aquaculture, or fish farming. The trick is to figure out how to farm sustainably. Paul Greenberg's highly readable book on this subject, "Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food" (Penguin, $16), taught me that, in fact, tilapia are very well suited to farming, while salmon are not. In most salmon-farming operations, up to 4 pounds of small, wild fish (herring, sardines) are used in the feed mixture required to produce 1 pound of salmon.

Sustainable aquaculture

These days, fish farming is big business, and some of these businesses are working to make aquaculture more sustainable. For example, Verlasso, based in Patagonia, Chile, has developed a yeast-rich fish feed that allows the company to use less wild fish in its salmon production. Verlasso uses 1 pound of wild fish to produce 1pound of salmon. (Read more at verlasso.com; Verlasso salmon is available through Fresh Direct.

If this story has a moral, it's that choosing a safe, sustainable fish product is complicated. Simplistic equations -- farmed equals bad, wild equals good -- don't take into account a lot of crucial information. After all, the dreaded Nakaochi Scrape is a wild product.

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