Americans love shrimp. On average, we consume about 4.10 pounds of it a year, compared with only 2.8 pounds of canned tuna and 1.84 pounds of salmon. Most of that shrimp is imported from countries in Southeast Asia, where it’s produced using chemicals and drugs not approved in the U.S.
Shrimp may be the most popular seafood in the U.S. But would we eat as much of it if we fully understood the food safety, environmental and ethical issues associated with its production?
Like contemporary factory farm meat production, shrimp farming has become intensive. Shrimp are crowded into small ponds. Because the water in those ponds typically is not re-circulated, harmful waste builds up, oxygen is depleted and disease breaks out. To combat disease, fish farmers often turn to the excessive use of antibiotics.
It isn’t just the shrimp itself that’s questionable. Shrimp production in Southeast Asia is rife with worker abuse and destruction of local farmland—which means destruction of local livelihoods. In Bangladesh, for instance, local farmers have lost land to industrial shrimp operations that are operated by non-locals. Their once-fertile land now is submerged under the commercial operations’ man-made ponds, which often are built by destroying mangrove forests which previously supported the local community. The "chemical soup" that commercial shrimp are grown in threatens local workers, and pollutes their water bodies and marine life with toxic effluent. When the ponds become so polluted that even antibiotics no longer work, the operators pack up and move on to a new location where they destroy another local environment.
Clearly, consumers should avoid imported shrimp. But unfortunately, it’s not easy. Labeling omissions and even outright fraud make it almost impossible to know where the shrimp you buy comes from, or how it was produced. Farmed fish are often labeled “gulf shrimp” even though an Oceana exposé found instances where packages of “gulf shrimp” included many non-gulf species—even aquarium pet shrimp. Yet packages marked just “shrimp” often, ironically, contain wild-caught shrimp. Such fraud costs Americans an estimated $25 billion annually says the Atlantic.
Mislabeling is more often than not intentional. The largest seafood vendors pressure the government not to enforce proper labeling, seafood writer Jerald Horst told
the New York Times. The federal Country of Origin Labeling Law (COOL) used to mandate disclosure of where fresh seafood was farmed or caught, but the law didn’t apply to processed foods, including boiled and breaded seafood, seafood added to packaged meals, or shrimp sold in restaurants. However now, even that consumer protection is gone—Congress repealed COOL in December 2015.
Chemicals, including banned ones, dominate shrimp farming
Commercial shrimp production in India, the second largest exporter of shrimp to the U.S, begins with a long list of chemicals, including urea, superphosphate and diesel. From there it gets worse. Fish-killing chemicals like chlorine and rotenone (linked to Parkinson’s Disease), and the use of Borax and sodium tripolyphosphate (a suspected neurotoxin), are rampant in in India’s shrimp production, according to “Bottomfeeder: How to Eat Ethically in a World of Vanishing Seafood.”
By contrast, only one chemical, formalin, is approved for use in U.S. shrimp production. Formalin is a parasiticide which contains formaldehyde gas. It has no mandatory withdrawal time or legal residue tolerance. Other chemicals, such as the antibiotics the chloramphenicol and quinolones, are completely banned in U.S shrimp production, while others are "unapproved" but widely used "off-label."
Too many inspection loopholes
Both the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) and the shrimp industry have mechanisms to protect the consumer from bacterial and chemical shrimp risks, but the regulations are difficult to enforce. The FDA relies on the Hazard Analysis & Critical Control Points (HACCP) program, the PREDICT system, random shipment checks, "import alerts" and 2011 Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) regulations to stop unhealthful shrimp. But there are only 200 fulltime inspectors to police 300 ports, according to interviews. HACCP does not include checks for a bacterium called Vibrio in shrimp. Widely but erroneously believed to be destroyed by a quick freezing process, Vibrio is known to sometimes survive freezing.
When imported shrimp arrives in the U.S., the FDA is in charge of ensuring its safety—but over 96 percent of shipments are not opened or checked at the ports. Instead, the FDA relies on an automated system that flags companies with prior offenses for greater scrutiny, including document inspection, visual inspection (is it really shrimp?) and actual lab tests. If a company or country is an actual violator of FDA regulations, shipments are automatically detained and denied entry under the FDA’s Import Alert program, without inspections or lab tests. Automatic detention of shipments is not lifted until a manufacturer, shipper, grower or importer demonstrates to the FDA that the violation has been corrected. But the system isn’t foolproof. When a country is blocked from shipping shrimp it often "transships" through a different country, one that is believed to be safe, say seafood safety experts.
Most trade and seafood experts agree the solution to unsafe shrimp from farming operations is not stopping it at the port but at the pond, using third-party certification in the country where it is produced. Yet a 2011 report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which assessed FDA third-party certification of shrimp production, found language barriers, data collection irregularities and a general feeling that "no one was minding the store." Six out of eight auditors, for example, did not even know what drugs and chemicals were approved in U.S. exports.
Wild-Caught shrimp—better for you, bad for the environment
Wild-caught shrimp do not put consumers at the same risk of exposure to chemicals as farm-raised shrimp, especially imported farm-raised shrimp. But wild-caught shrimp takes a huge toll on the environment.
The process used to catch wild shrimp involves dragging cone-shaped nets, called otter trawlers, along the ocean floor. But these nets catch more than just shrimp. For every pound of wild-caught shrimp, another six pounds of other marine life, referred to as “bycatch,” is destroyed—and discarded.
Bycatch, including dolphins and sharks, can be reduced if shrimpers replace otter trawlers with Turtle Exclusion Devices (TED). But some shrimpers forego these devices because they reduce the size of the shrimp catch. In 1987, Louisiana even passed a law prohibiting enforcement of federal TED regulations in its water, rightfully inspiring the Monterey Bay Aquarium to blacklist Louisiana wild shrimp.
Is there a way to safely and ethically eat shrimp?
Clearly, designations like “gulf shrimp,” “wild caught,” "organic" or "turtle safe” mean nothing. Unless labels are third-party certified, shrimp sellers can, and do, claim whatever they like on their labels. Luckily several third-party certified labels exist on shrimp packages that provide some transparency about production methods, from stocking density and chemicals used to negative environmental and social impacts, including the use of unethical labor.
Certifications that are widely trusted are the Marine Stewardship Council, Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch, Global Aquaculture Alliance’s Best Aquaculture Practices label (BAP), the Aquaculture Stewardship Council's Farmed Responsibly label, Whole Foods Market's Responsibly Farmed label and the Naturland label.
But for the most part, when it comes to buying shrimp—whether from a store or a restaurant—it’s buyer beware.
Martha Rosenberg is a contributing writer to the Organic Consumers Association.