Exotic food is fun to try and an exciting way to experience another culture, but there are some items that need to be left off our plates. Although many of these cuisines are said to be delicious, we can’t only think of ourselves and eat whatever tastes good without knowing the consequences.
Eating foods like Veal, Shark Fin soup, Dolphin, Ortolan, Green Sea Turtle, Whale and Foie Gras come at a high price, and I’m not just talking about money. Although these may not seem like normal items we would find at the grocery store in most Western societies, they are sold and eaten in many markets and restaurants all over the globe, even when laws and regulations are in place. This causes more and more creatures to enter the endangered species list, harms ecosystems and promotes the cruelty of animals.
As travelers, it is our duty to not give money to companies that don’t practice sustainability and proper animal welfare, and to make sure we actually know what we are eating, because it could be a baby Beluga.
Unsustainable seafood is described by the Monterey Bay Aquarium as “caught or farmed in ways that harm other marine life or the environment.” It is important as consumers to only purchase what is sustainable, because when marine ecosystems die, so does the ocean, and without an ocean we have no life. If the demand of certain fish and other marine life goes down, we can then harvest them in a more eco-friendly way, thus providing for future generations while keeping the environment healthy.
Bluefin and Yellowfin Tuna, Shark, Chilean Sea Bass, Atlantic Cod and Salmon, King Krab and Octopus are only a few of the many depleting populations in our oceans caused by over-fishing for the commercial market and even unregulated or illegal fishing.
Shark Fin soup has seen much controversy in the past few years, as it is said that 73 million sharks were killed annually, according to a study conducted by Shelley Clarke, a fisheries expert in 2006. The practice of Shark Finning involves slicing off the fin of a living shark, and throwing it back into the ocean to die a slow death where it either starves, gets eaten alive or drowns. Shark fin’s biggest economy lies in China, where it is considered a delicacy. The fin actually has little to no flavor, and is typically a symbol of status. This caused some shark populations to decline about 98% and about a third of shark species were added to the threatened species list. Sharks are an important part of the ecosystem, and even though they may look scary, it is our job to protect them. Luckily, as of 2014, there has been a significant decrease in the market. According to the U.S. conservation group Wild Aid, there is a 70% fall in consumption in China and a 20-30% fall in market values. This is due to the revolt of many Western societies and new regulations in place put fourth by the Chinese government. Taiwan as of now is the only Asian country to ban Finning, whereas in China it is still legal.
Along with marine fish, Whales and Dolphins, although highly regulated, are still being hunted and are often mislabeled as other foods on the packaging purely for money-making purposes. Whale is eaten in Japan, Iceland and Norway, and although commercial whaling was banned by the International Whaling Commission in 1986, there are many ways these laws can be dodged. It is important to watch out for this when eating foods like sushi, because whale can sometimes be said to be other types of fish. So if you don’t recognize something on your sushi platter, make sure to ask the restaurant what it exactly is.
Dolphin meat is also sold for consumption in Japan, and is often labeled as whale meat so it can sell for a higher price. The film “The Cove” highlights the controversial practices in which the dolphins are killed. Dolphins are not on any endangered species lists though, so the only real argument we can make is their intelligence level, and even that’s a bit hazy. Some Americans also just think they are cute and we want to overpay to swim with them at Atlantis and contribute to a different problem, which is another story. Taiwan is the only country in Asia to make harvesting dolphins illegal, as of 1989.
Monterey Bay Aquarium’s ‘Seafood Watch’ app for smart-phones is a great way to know what types of fish you should stay away from and where certain species are being over-fished. Whether you’re a sushi lover at home or like to explore new morsels when you travel, it’s always good to know where your seafood comes from and how it is being processed. This way we can contribute to healthy fishery management and wild harvest.
Food that comes from the ocean is not the only thing to watch out for, as foods like Veal, Foie Gras and Ortolan come with consequences as well. Veal is a term used for baby cow meat, and actually some of the main arguments come from the way the animals are treated, not their age. In the 1980s, The New York Times released photos from veal packing plants that shocked many Americans because of the tiny crates they were in, allowing very little ability to move. The amount of veal consumption has lowered and the American Veal Association has goals to eliminate crates by 2017, which is still quite a long time. Crates are already banned in Colorado, California, Arizona, Michigan, Maine and the European Union. Although there are more regulated facilities now, it may be good to leave veal off of your plate to not add money to the industry.
Foie Gras is French for “fat liver.” It is made from a goose or duck that has been force-fed through a metal tube or gavage to fatten the liver to about 600% its normal size to make it taste better. This dish is most common in France and surrounding areas. Although some say the practices aren’t as horrific as they sound and arguments like ducks don’t have gag reflexes, their bodies are meant to store extra fat for migration, and they are free to roam are made, it can’t be that comfortable to be unwillingly fed through a metal tube.
Ortolan, a songbird is another delicacy found in France. It is typically eaten whole, in one big mouthful, underneath a napkin. The population of this species has declined greatly, and although illegal, continues to drop due to poaching. To watch how an Ortolan bird is prepared and eaten, visit:
Some other food items to watch out for are the Green Sea turtle, particularly in the Cayman Islands, the Mountain chicken/ Giant Ditch Frog in the Carribean, the Chinese Giant Salamander and Pangolin in China, the Western Long-Beaked Echidna in Papua New Guinea, and yes, even Gorilla in the Republic of Congo.
It is important to travel and experience new cultures by trying new foods, but there are obviously some food items that should be avoided on the next vacation or at home. As travelers, it is important to do research on local cuisine and make sure we know what we are eating. The large amount of uninformed people can cause some of these problems in the first place by not knowing how their food is processed, where it comes from and if it is sustainable, therefore adding to an industry that isn’t eco-friendly. Only the consumer can create change, so be a traveler, not a tourist.
Trying delicacies is always an… experience. I love to try delicacies, sometimes just so that I can say that “Yup, I have most definitely eaten jelly fish.” Will I do it again? Nope. But it’s the experience. But you have to be mindful, some cultures don’t take to teasing when their beloved dishes are in front of you!
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