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A recent Food and Drug Administration alert about farmed shrimp from Asia raises health questions about the food system that delivers imported shrimp to the U.S. and the rest of the world. The notice also serves as a warning to consumers to know more about where the seafood comes from and how it was grown or harvested.

Forty-five out of 138 shipments (32%) from the Malaysian Peninsula sampled between October 1, 2014, through September 30, 2015 were found to have carcinogenic substances the FDA doesn’t want in our food. So the FDA has given inspectors the authority to reject all shrimp shipments from the Malaysian peninsula, save for a few exceptions, without a physical inspection.

What did they find? Antibiotics called nitrofurans and chloramphenicol, both of which have proved harmful to human health with prolonged exposure. Additionally, prolonged use can create antibiotic-resistant bacteria that can make matters worse.

So carcinogenic antibiotics were found in aquaculture shrimp from Asia.

Shock. Surprise.

The question is why. To better understand, let’s take a quick look at how shrimp farming typically works, and why it should give anyone pause when at a grocery store, seafood market or restaurant.

Big business, big risks

Shrimp farming is a huge business. Some estimates have global farmed shrimp at 3.7 million metric tons in 2014, worth between $12 billion and $15 billion dollars. The drive to grow profits as well as shrimp means increasing production.

Shrimp farming often starts by destroying and removing ecologically critical mangrove ecosystems (nurseries for many species) to create retention ponds where the shrimp will grow. These ponds are usually fed with seawater that passes through the ponds and often re-enters the ocean … carrying much of the waste filtered through ponds carrying thousands of pounds of shrimp and their feces. Many operations claim they filter the water before it enters the ocean, but…

But because shrimp are the number one consumed seafood around the world, many operations in Third World countries in Central and South America and Asia jam as many shrimp into these ponds as possible. Without proper filtration, those shrimp are highly susceptible to disease, because, you know, they’re swimming in their own poop.

Bad medicine

For the past decade or so, many operators have found it easier to use antibiotics and other potentially harmful materials to fend off the bacteria that could cause disease. Those antibiotics don’t just disappear overnight. They don’t always fend off disease either, resulting in huge losses. Just witness recent cases of “early mortality syndrome (EMS)” in Asia.asianshrimpfarm_405x250

EMS is a devastating disease borne of a microorganism found in estuaries around the world, and showing up in overcrowded ponds that have poor filtration. The bacteria shut down the shrimp’s digestive system, killing the shrimp. Its infection rate is fast and efficient, meaning it can quickly kill all of the shrimp in a pond. EMS has mostly been found in Asia, but has also cropped up in Mexico.

To try and avoid catastrophic losses, growers choose from a menu of preventative measures, such as chlorine, superphosphates and ozone to disinfect the water, probiotics to fight off the bad bacteria and stabilize the water quality and antibiotics to treat illness. Aside from the potential threats to human health, another issue with these approaches appears to be that they may actually make the ponds more susceptible to infection, according to some scientists.

None of this is good for the shrimp or consumers.

Market impact

The Global Aquaculture Alliance estimates EMS causes $1 billion in losses annually. This explains why shrimp farmers are willing to do most anything to bring “healthy” shrimp to market … including using antibiotics the US FDA deems carcinogenic.

Here are some problems with this food system:

  • 90% of the seafood eaten in the U.S. is imported;
  • 50% of the seafood consumed in the U.S. is farm raised;
  • Only 5% of the seafood consumed in the U.S. is farm raised domestically;
  • 90% of the world’s shrimp exports come from Asia and India;
  • 55% of global shrimp production is aquaculture;
  • The U.S. is far more strict about safe aquaculture practices than most of the world;
  • The FDA is understaffed for inspectors, particularly those inspecting incoming seafood.

Source: UN Food and Agriculture Organization 2014 Status of the Stocks

This all means that most of the farmed shrimp consumed in this country was farm-raised in Asia, where there is a greater chance that it was treated with chemicals deemed unsafe to consume by the FDA. And there aren’t enough inspectors checking all of the imports.

How could this situation get much worse? If the latest trade deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, is approved in Congress, the few inspectors checking U.S. imports may have their hands tied. The pact allows signatories like Thailand, Viet Nam and yes, Malaysia to sue the U.S. claiming that applying more strict U.S. health codes to imported seafood constitutes unfair trade practices. The result could be sanctions, fines and an open door to products tainted with carcinogenic substances.

Get smart

In the classroom the message always comes back to awareness. I encourage students to question where their seafood comes from. I considered it a shrimp-diseasemoral victory a few months ago when a 6th grader told the class she stopped her mom from ordering shrimp because it was from Thailand.

It’s that kind of awareness that helps students, their parents and anyone else understand that shrimp coming from Asia, or anywhere outside the U.S. is a good thing to avoid.

So you may want to pause before ordering the shrimp cocktail. Try to find the country of origin. If the shrimp isn’t from the U.S., you may want to consider another option. Because when the FDA sends up a red flag like this, it’s a good idea to take note.

 

Photo credits in order: Eco News Network, Food Safety News, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics