Safe Fish for Children and Expecting Mothers
This article was written by Terezie Tolar-Peterson, who is the U.S. principal investigator for the Nourishing Nations: Improving the Quality and Safety of Processed Fish Products in Nigeria activity as a part of the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Fish.
Fish is a nutrient-dense food containing essential amino acids and iron, which are necessary for growth and development. Fish are also an important source of calcium, especially dried, small fish that are typically eaten whole. Furthermore, fish contain vitamin A and zinc, which are essential for health and immunity, and are a vital source of iodine and choline, two nutrients that are important during pregnancy. Most attention on fish as a “superfood” is because of its high essential fatty acid content, which plays a crucial role in brain development.
Despite the benefits of fish, there are risks of contamination. For instance, mercury contamination stems from natural and human-caused processes, including volcanic eruptions; mercury emissions from burning fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas; and gold mining. Fish absorb methylmercury from their food and water and it accumulates in their tissues and muscles. The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends that women who might become pregnant, are pregnant or breastfeeding and children up to 11 years old consume fish with lower mercury content or limit or even exclude fish with higher mercury content, like king mackerel, shark, tilefish and swordfish.
Delta State, Nigeria, where the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Fish activity, Nourishing Nations: Improving the Quality and Safety of Processed Fish Products in Nigeria, is implemented is an oil-producing area. Delta State is, therefore, vulnerable to contamination from frequent oil spills and leaks. Fish from oil spill areas contain polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which, similar to mercury, accumulate in the flesh of the fish.
However, mercury and PAHs are not the only contaminants to which fish are exposed. Another critical opportunity for contamination is during handling, transport, processing and storage. In Nigeria, traditional processing methods expose fish to contamination caused by microbial pathogens, parasites, chemical contaminants and biotoxins.
For example, Nigeria’s most common fish processing method is smoking using traditional smoking kilns and fuelwood energy, which also exposes fish to PAHs. Chronic exposure to PAHs is associated with an increased risk of cancer. It is estimated that 70% of Nigerian catch is smoked. The level of PAHs in traditionally smoked fish products is higher than in industry-smoked fish.
Another concern is microbial contamination caused by human pathogens or by spoilage from bacteria. Most fish in Delta State come from capture fisheries. The fish are stored on the bottom of a canoe, often lying in warm, dirty water, not gutted and exposed to the sun before they get to fish processors. After the fish are smoked, they are usually packaged in baskets or jute sacks and stored on shelves in the kitchen or smokehouse. The lack of adequate storage and transportation facilities exposes fish to spoilage and contamination and causes up to 30-50% of the harvest to be wasted.
The research conducted by the Nourishing Nations activity has three primary objectives: 1) educate fish processors about nutrition and food safety, 2) develop cost-per-nutrient guides by analyzing the nutrient and contaminant profile of select processed fish products and their respective prices in comparison to other animal source foods and 3) build capacity among female and youth fish processors to produce high-quality, safe and nutritious processed fish products for local consumption.
A critical control point in preventing fish contamination or spoilage is during transportation and processing. Therefore, the Nourishing Nations activity focuses on the education of small-scale fish processors. Fish processors in Nigeria are most commonly women who have secondary education and are married but lack any formal education about nutrition, food safety or processing. This typically overlooked population plays an essential role in preventing contamination of fish products. Being primarily women, they have the potential to play an important role in educating other women — who often make decisions about household food consumption — about the health benefits of fish. We identified this group as a critical group with the potential to improve the quality and safety of fish in Delta State.
The Nourishing Nations activity enrolled 122 fish processors, mostly women, in three, day-long training sessions. The training was focused on the benefit of fish for health and food safety and discussed safer processing and handling methods. Other information shared within the group focused on recognizing spoiled fish; the use of improved energy sources like charcoal, coal, gas and electricity; ensuring hygienic drying; and the use of modern packaging materials.
The training was accepted with enthusiasm and filled a crucial gap in the education of an essential group in the fish business. The training also served as a venue for sharing information and providing support to participants.
By developing cost-per-nutrient guides and contaminant profiles of the most common fish on the market, the Nourishing Nations activity will be able to provide evidence-based recommendations for children and women in Delta State.
The team hopes that the focus on educating small-scale fish processors will contribute to safe fish that mothers and children can enjoy for their immense health benefits.
To learn more about the Nourishing Nations activity, register to watch their recent webinar.