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Facts about Shrimp

May 17, 2014 - 0 comments

Shrimp is the most popular seafood in the United States, but here's an unsettling fact that might keep you from ordering your next shrimp cocktail: 90 percent of the shrimp we eat has been imported, but less than 2 percent of that gets inspected by U.S. regulatory agencies. What's the big deal? Imported shrimp, more than any other seafood, has been found to be contaminated with banned chemicals, pesticides, and even cockroaches, and it skirts food-safety authorities only to wind up on your plate. The number one reason for all that: the dirty conditions in which farmed shrimp are raised.

According to a 2011 Government Accountability Office report, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) tested just 0.1 percent of imported seafood for chemical residues. Here's what the agency missed in that untested 99.9 percent: banned antibiotics that have the potential to cause cancer. Recently, ABC News recruited scientists from Texas Tech University's Institute of Environmental and Human Health to test 30 samples of shrimp purchased from grocery stores for the presence of three classes of antibiotics.

Two samples of farm-raised (as opposed to wild) shrimp from India and Thailand tested positive for nitrofuranzone, an antibiotic that's a known carcinogen, at levels 28 and 29 times higher than those allowed by the FDA. Another antibiotic, chloramphenical, was detected at levels 150 times the legal limit. It's been banned in food production in the U.S. because of possible severe side effects such as aplastic anemia and leukemia.

One exposure to imported shrimp isn't likely to harm you, says study author Todd Anderson, PhD, professor of environmental toxicology. "It's the potential for chronic exposure that we're most concerned about."

Banned antibiotics aren't the only unwanted sides you get with imported shrimp. Previous tests have found penicillin, an antibiotic that, while legal, could trigger allergic reactions in unsuspecting shrimp-lovers.

"Imported farmed shrimp comes with a whole bevy of contaminants: antibiotics, residues from chemicals used to clean pens, filth like mouse hair, rat hair, and pieces of insects," says Marianne Cufone, director of the fish program at the nonprofit Food & Water Watch.

And that list doesn't include Salmonella and E. coli, both of which have been detected in imported shrimp. In fact, imported shrimp is so dirty that it accounts for 26 to 35 percent of all shipments of imported seafood that get rejected due to filth, according to Food & Water Watch.

A report published in the November 2012 issue of Bloomberg magazine revealed some truly disgusting facts about the conditions in which shrimp are packaged and shipped. At one particular facility in Vietnam, the magazine's reporters found processing-plant floors littered with garbage, flies buzzing around, and shrimp that wasn't being stored at proper temperatures.

The shrimp itself was packed in ice made from local tap water, which public health authorities warned should be boiled before using due to microbial contamination, potentially exposing the shrimp (and eaters) to more bacterial contamination. According to Bloomberg, FDA inspectors have rejected 1,380 loads of seafood from Vietnam since 2007 for filth and salmonella, including 81 from the plant the reporters visited.

o cope with all the pathogens on imported shrimp, the FDA recently approved irradiation of shrimp, at the request of the seafood industry. In addition to potentially turning the seafood to mush and introducing harmful byproducts (scientists have observed all manner of health problems in animals fed irradiated food), the use of irradiation will be used as a "magic bullet" to solve food safety problems, says Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch, a nonprofit group opposed to irradiation, allowing countries to continue raising their products in unsanitary conditions. All irradiated seafood must be labeled with the symbol seen here, called the Radura, and it must bear the words "Treated with radiation." However, irradiated shrimp that's used in processed foods doesn't need to be labeled.

As if filthy packing plants aren't bad enough, there's a very good chance your shrimp was packed and processed by slave labor. Reports from labor groups including Human Rights Watch, the International Labor Rights Forum and even the U.S. State Department have detailed widespread labor violations in the shrimp industry. The largest U.S. supplier of processed shrimp, a company based in Thailand that supplies Walmart and most of the U.S. restaurant industry, was recently accused of forcing children to work 16-hour shifts, often at night to avoid audits from independent groups and government officials trying to monitor child labor violations, while getting paid just $3 a day—far from a decent living wage.

Shrimp farms in Bangladesh are frequently found guilty of employing underage children and of forcing migrant farmers into indentured servitude. And although violations in Thailand and Bangladesh are the most well-documented, one report from a group called Accenture for Humanity United concluded, "In looking at the underlying issues that allow and indeed cause exploitation to take place, it is clear that similar practices could be taking place in the other major shrimp-producing countries in Asia and Latin America."

More often than not, imported shrimp are raised in farms, rather than being caught wild. Shrimp farms, essentially huge underwater pens, are built along coastlines, and to make room for them, shrimp farmers have to destroy native mangrove forests that provide a buffer against hurricanes and flooding. Scientists from the U.S. Department of Agriculture have found that mangrove forests absorb and trap more climate-changing carbon dioxide than any other ecosystem on the planet, including rainforests.

Yet, over the past 50 years, anywhere from 5 to 80 percent of the mangrove forests in Thailand, Ecuador, Indonesia, China, Mexico, and Vietnam (the five leading shrimp-farming countries) have been destroyed to make room for more coastal shrimp farms.

Those mangrove forests do more than just trap carbon dioxide. They provide vital habitats for other commercial seafood species that are important to local economies, including snapper, wild tilapia, sea bass, oysters, and crabs. According to Food & Water Watch, roughly 70 percent of commercially valuable seafood species in Ecuador, Honduras, and Mexico and 33 percent in Southeast Asia are dependent on mangrove forests, and for each acre destroyed, 675 pounds of commercial fish are lost.

While it's clear the farmed shrimp industry has lots of cleaning up to do, the wild-caught option doesn't come without problems, either. Fisherman catch wild shrimp using fine-meshed trawl nets pulled through the water. Worldwide, for one pound of fish, there's about 5 pounds of bycatch—other species that become trapped in the nets.

Despite improvements in escape hatches in fishing nets, bycatch rates are still high. "Shrimp is one of the most—if not the most—damaging fisheries around," Andy Sharpless, CEO of the ocean conservation group Oceana, writes in his new book The Perfect Protein. "Even in the high regulated United States, 76 percent of the marine life that shrimp trawlers haul up isn't shrimp at all but rather species like shark, red snapper, and almost 9,000 endangered sea turtles each year."


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