It shows up in the dining halls in a multitude of ways: with cilantro and lime, honey ginger glaze, or as a crispy sandwich. But the status of swai, a staple for Harvard University Dining Services, is not so clean cut outside of Cambridge, where competing claims on the fish's sustainability and distribution have raised debate about the endangered fish.
For most students, little is known about the fish, despite its prevalence on the HUDS menu since the fall of 2012. Swai, which is indigenous to Southeast Asia, is also known by its scientific name, Pangasianodon hypophthalmus, and for its prevalence as a hobby aquarium fish, in which context it is referred to as the iridescent shark.
It is also a popular white-flesh fillet in the United States, selling at grocery stores for a mere four dollars per pound. In Harvard dining halls, according to an emailed statement from HUDS director for marketing and communications Crista Martin, the fish is served two to three times during HUDS’s four-week cycle.
While Swai’s presence in Cambridge has grown, its population in the wild has declined rapidly during the past two decades.
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List, Swai is an endangered species. The IUCN reports that due to “overexploitation, habitat degradation, and changes in water quality and flow” the species has been nearly extirpated from rivers in both Thailand and Cambodia.
Martin wrote that Harvard has worked to alleviate environmental concerns by purchasing farm-raised swai.
“The swai we serve is a farmed product, imported, and our vendor, North Coast Seafood, works closely with this and other aquaculture business to ensure that its coming from a reputable source that complies with all USFDA regulations,” Martin wrote.
Barton Seaver, a well-known chef and author of the book “For Cod and Country,” has worked closely with HUDS to develop its menu and originally suggested adding the embattled fish to dining halls as an alternative to red meat.
“I recommended it because it is a lean, clean, delicious protein,” Seaver said. “It enables chefs to be creative.”
When asked about its endangered status, Seaver noted that swai is a product that can be produced and sourced in a sustainable manner. According to Seaver, 100 percent of the swai sold in the U.S. is farm-raised. He also praised North Coast Seafood—Harvard’s distributor for swai.
“[North Coast] takes great pride and care in the wholesomeness…and sustainability of its product,” Seaver said.
Still, some have warned against eating swai, claiming that certain antibiotics that are banned in the U.S. are used on these fish in Vietnam. Prevention.com called Swai one of the “Unhealthy Fish to Avoid Eating” and The Food & Water Watch listed it as one of their “Dirty Dozen” seafoods.
Sebastian Cianci, a spokesperson for the Food and Drug Administration, refuted these concerns, adding in an email that if there were a concern with antibiotics, the FDA would keep the product from entering the American market and place Swai vendors on “import alert.”
“The laws and regulations FDA enforces and the programs it oversees are designed to ensure that the food reaching U.S. consumers is safe to eat,” Cianci wrote. “This includes the food being served in the Harvard cafeteria.”
—Staff writer Arjun S. Byju can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.