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When you sit down to eat that plate full of shrimp, you are also unknowingly eating sewage and many illegal drugs.
According to the advocacy group, Food & Water Watch, more than 9 out of 10 fish that Americans eat are imported and about half of all imported fish and seafood were raised on fish farms.1
As aquaculture has grown from low-densityy farms to giant factory operations, there are negative impacts on the health of the fish and seafood. Shrimp is now the most popular seafood in the U.S. and foreign producers have ramped up industrialization of shrimp farming to meet the demand.
According to a shrimp industry news source, low-density shrimp farming can yield 500 to 5,000 kilograms per hectare per year whereas super-intensive shrimp farming can yield up to 100,000 kilograms per hectare per year.2 In a reflection on the industry’s success, some call shrimp “Pink Gold.”3
Intensive production in confined spaces brings many challenges to maintaining a healthy growing environment. Food & Water Watch says that crowded shrimp are sick shrimp, “With millions of shrimp crammed together in ponds, diseases can run rampant, in some cases severe enough to kill off entire ponds and even a country’s entire shrimp industry.
On average, an intensive shrimp operation only lasts for seven years before the level of pollution and pathogens within the pond reaches a point where shrimp can no longer survive.”4
Factory farmed shrimp can be contaminated with pesticides, antibiotics, and even drug-resistant pathogens. Food & Water Watch reports that foreign farms:
- Give daily doses of antibiotics, either mixed in with feed pellets, dumped directly into pond water or both. (These include Cipro!)4
- Shrimp producers often use large quantities of chemicals to kill fish, mollusks, fungi, plants, insects and parasites in their ponds. Some of the chemicals remain in the shrimp, which is then served to consumers, potentially causing human health impacts. (These include organophosphates and rotenone)4
There are challenges to the environment as well. Wise Mind and Healthy Body quotes Greenpeace as saying, “Over the last few decades shrimp farming has been a relentless destroyer of huge expanses of tropical coastlines, particularly mangrove forests. Mangrove forest roots are bulldozed into the mud to make way for the intruding shrimp farms. The coastal equivalent of terrestrial rain forests, mangroves are home to an incredibly diverse range of life. They are breeding grounds and nurseries for many fish, shellfish and other wildlife. Shrimp farming turns them into a barren and toxic prawn cocktail.”5
How Do We Know Where Our Shrimp Was Produced?
When we think about how best to protect our families as we make food choices, many of us have started reviewing food labels closely to know where food was produced. Unfortunately, according to Food & Water Watch, “Under the federal Country of Origin Labeling Law, also known as COOL, labels on fresh seafood are required to tell consumers where the fish was farmed or wild-caught. Unfortunately, nearly 50 percent of the shrimp found in grocery stores have no label because they have been processed – boiled, breaded or added to a seafood medley – and thus are exempt from labeling requirements. Stores that carry only a small amount of seafood are also exempt from COOL, as are restaurants. Even if a label isn’t apparent, consumers still can ask about the origin of their seafood.”4
If you are able to determine the country of origin, what might it mean for the safety of the products? According to the Government Accountability Office, a review of food safety regulations and loopholes finds these disappointing issues among the countries where the U.S. imports a significant amount of foreign farmed shrimp:
Thailand: “In 2010, the United States imported over 916 million pounds of edible seafood from Thailand, including catfish, shrimp, and tuna…Thai officials told us that because their government has no agreement with FDA on food safety and because no health certification is required for exports to the United States, the government cannot ensure the overall safety of the seafood products, particularly in the final processing stage.” 6
Ecuador: “In 2010, the United States imported almost 243 million pounds of edible seafood from Ecuador, including shrimp, tilapia, and tuna…According to Ecuadoran officials, if government inspectors identify a human health hazard, they will take steps to destroy the product. However, these farms can still sell their products to facilities, not under government oversight, and these products can be exported to countries where Ecuadoran government certification is not required, such as the United States.” 6
Indonesia: In 2010, the United States imported over 275 million pounds of edible seafood from Indonesia, including crabmeat, shrimp, and tuna… Indonesian officials told us that when they are notified of a rejected product, the affected processing plant is suspended from exporting additional seafood products until it takes the corrective action the government has determined is needed. If the processing plant does not take the corrective action, the government can revoke the plant’s registration. According to Indonesian officials, FDA and the Indonesian government do not communicate on products that FDA has rejected for import. As a result, the Indonesian government does not learn that a product has been rejected for 2 or 3 months.” 6
Wild Caught Alternatives
While 4 out of 5 shrimp U.S. consumers eat are imported,1 tests by Consumer Reports (CR) found that wild shrimp from U.S. waters were least likely to be contaminated with bacteria or chemicals. 7 Wild caught shrimping carries environmental risks. The CR report observes that it is estimated that 1 to 3 pounds of other species such as sea turtles can be caught up in shrimp nets and killed for every pound of shrimp caught in the wild. 7 CR recommends buying wild shrimp certified by the Marine Stewardship Council. MSC maintains a Blue Fish Label that shows the seafood was obtained from fisheries meeting the Council’s strict sustainability standards.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program helps consumers and businesses choose seafood fished or farmed in ways that support “a healthy ocean, now and for future generations.” They have a helpful website that offers ratings on best choices and what to avoid in selecting both farmed and wild caught shrimp.
Below is an excellent investigative report on the many challenges consumers, wholesalers and regulatory agencies face when buying and eating shrimp:
1Food and Water Watch. Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) Delivers a Rising Tide of Imported Fish. Fact Sheet December 2015.
2Shrimp News International. About Shrimp Farming.
3Rudloe J, Rudloe A. Shrimp: The Endless Quest for Pink Gold. 2010. FT Press Science: New York.
4Food and Water Watch. Suspicious Shrimp: The Health Risks of Industrialized Shrimp Production. June 2008.
5Living Traditionally. Warning: 90% Of Your Shrimp Comes from Toxic Sewage Ponds In Asia.
6Government Accountability Office. Food safety: FDA can better oversee food imports by assessing and leveraging other countries’ oversight resources. Report GAO-12-933. September 2012.
7Consumer Reports. How Safe Is Your Shrimp? Special Report. 2015.