The Caviar Conundrum

 The politics of food has become a lot more complicated in recent years. Take caviar. It’s a delicacy yes. I enjoy the experience of eating it. But Seafood Watch ranks most of it as AVOID. Centuries of demand have demolished the fisheries of sturgeon and other fish that produce the very best roe. Traditionally the fish were killed to harvest their roe, sending the most prized wild sturgeon from the Caspian Sea to the brink of extinction. Which for me has meant years of caviarless Valentine’s day celebrations. There’s nothing romantic about extinction. But I am not the only one choosing to forgo the roe. Chefs, restaurants and other palate influencers in the U.S. and Europe have also turned their backs on wild caviar.

There is an acceptable alternative. Farmed American caviar. It’s making a dent in the caviar market, at least here in the U.S. But the great, vast bulk of edible caviar still comes from Iran, Russia and Turkey. Meaning the U.S. represents a very small percentage of the global production of caviar. We don’t even make enough to keep up with our own domestic demand. I am not saying that the smarter, more sustainable practices in the U.S. farmed sturgeon biz aren’t a good step in the right direction. But I am saying, globally it’s a very small baby step. More needs to be done before caviar can be considered a guiltless pleasure.

So I was pleased to read in the U.K.‘s Independent that a Latvian producer, Mottra Caviar, has developed a method of extracting caviar from ossetra sturgeons without killing the fish themselves. They “use ultrasound to determine when captive females are ready to spawn and then manually massage their eggs into collection containers. A small, quick-to-heal incision in the muscle of the urinogenital opening makes the process more comfortable for the fish, which is only out of the water for two or three minutes. It’s much less stressful than removing the roe by cesarean section, as some farms do, and it’s way better than extinction.”

Hmmm. Food for thought. So I decided to buy a tin of Mottra recently. I’d hate to be the kind of person whose dogma kept him from getting all the facts available. I decided that I am not quite ready to bring imported caviar back to my plate in any large scale way. But the story and the strides made by some producers fits in with my broader hope that many of the ethical issues about our food supply might actually get solved (someday). In fact it makes me think that as consumers our demands can affect the behavior of suppliers. GREG