CHICAGO — The Great Lakes Region, which is undergoing a culinary renaissance and should be enjoying renewed interest in its many freshwater fish, continues to be dogged with questions about the safety and wholesomeness of its catch.
The problem was illustrated last week when a pregnant woman eating at one of this city's finest restaurants was discouraged by a waiter from ordering a Great Lakes fish (such as whitefish, chubs, lake trout, perch or pike) because of the potential presence of toxins in the fillet. Such chemical contaminants may be linked to birth defects.
Even worse for the area's image, the woman happened to be a journalist attending the Newspaper Food Editors & Writers Assn. conference meeting.
The restaurant episode was particularly troubling to Midwestern fish purveyors. They insist the waiter was misguided and that stringent state and federal chemical monitoring programs ensure that all commercially caught fish from the Great Lakes are safe to eat. When informed of the same restaurant incident, however, environmental activist Mark Van Putten, director of the National Wildlife Federation's Great Lakes Natural Resource Center in Ann Arbor, Mich., applauded and said similar advice should be given to all women of child-bearing age.
The issue is of sharp concern in this region because of the presence of toxins such as PCBs, DDT, dioxin and others, in the Great Lakes. Further, critics charge that the government inspection programs do not provide adequate protection for consumers.
The issue is also of concern to Southern California: Los Angeles is the second largest consumer (after New York) of Great Lakes whitefish. (Whitefish is the leading commercially caught fish in the Great Lakes; one seafood distributor estimates that as much as five million pounds is harvested annually.)
"Commercial distribution (of Great Lakes fish) is virtually 100% safe to eat," said Bob Rubin, research and development director for the Chicago Fish House, which is reported to be the nation's largest seafood distributor.
Rubin added that the chemical contaminants that may be present in commercially caught fish are often removed by processing. "The fish store the contaminants in the belly fat and you don't eat that part," he said. "When the fish is processed into fillets, we cut away the contaminants (that may be present in this fatty tissue.)"
Van Putten agreed that some fish are much less prone to carry contaminants. "Data on species such as white fish and perch suggest that the amounts (of toxins) in those fish are far lower than in some of the others," he said. "And the white fish are among the safest of all because they are much less fatty."
However, Van Putten's group recommends that women of child-bearing age not consume any Great Lakes fish. This view is shared, he said, by several public health agencies in the region.
"The toxins from these fish are stored up over time in people," he said. "For instance, a woman who is a heavy consumer of Great Lakes fish, up until the time she is pregnant, has fairly high PCB levels in her body and tissues. These same fatty tissues are mobilized to create nutrients to the fetus and can be passed along."