With the rising safety concerns of the use of antibiotics in meat and poultry farming, many people have moved towards seafood to meet their daily protein needs.
From athletes to nutritionists to doctors, many health–savvy personalities recommend eating low-fat and highly nutritious seafood like shrimp.
This has caused shrimp consumption in the United States to skyrocket, increasing by three-fold since the 1970s. Nowadays, American eats an average of almost four pounds or shrimp per year (1).
Unfortunately, this increase in demand has changed methods used to produce shrimp and the quality of the product has fallen dramatically.
The Dirt on Shrimp
About 94 % of the shrimp consumed by Americans comes from countries such as India, Indonesia, and Thailand (2).
Instead of being caught in the wild, shrimps are harvested from large man-made ponds where up to 150 shrimps can coexist per square meter. Since the shrimp live in such a cramped space, diseases run rampant and epidemics are a regular occurrence.
Additionally, these large ponds aren’t always well-maintained and the animals are forced to live in contaminated water, further threatening their health.
“Bacteria and algae can begin to grow and disease can set in, prompting farmers to use drugs and other chemicals that can remain on the shrimp and seep into the surrounding environment,” says Urvashi Rangan, Ph.D., executive director of the Consumer Reports Food Safety and Sustainability Center.
To examine the consequences of these practices, Consumer Reports tested 342 packages of frozen shrimp — 284 raw, 58 cooked — purchased from stores around the United States.
They found bacterial residue, including salmonella, E. coli and listeria, on 60% of the samples tested. 7 raw samples also tested positive for deadly superbug MRSA while 11 samples contained residue from one or more antibiotics illegal in the USA.
The Food and Drug Administration is responsible for ensuring the safety of imported products. However, the agency only tests 2.7% of foreign shrimp shipments per year. Normally, if a product is found to contain deadly bacteria or illegal antibiotics, the entire shipment is refused and sent back to its country of origin.
Oddly enough, many of the diseases that affect shrimp, such as Early Mortality Syndrome (which wiped out 50% of Thai harvests in 2013) do not respond to antibiotics, explains Donald Lightner, Ph.D., a professor of veterinary science and microbiology at the University of Arizona. This means that many of the antibiotics used in shrimp farming aren’t necessarily justified.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Much of the seafood imported from Asia is packed in ice made from tap water that the local governments say isn’t safe to drink without boiling. What’s more, processing facilities are typically dirty and laden with flies as dead shrimp sit unrefrigerated for hours at a time in large plastic buckets (3).
“Those conditions — ice made from dirty water, animals near the farms, pigs — are unacceptable,” microbiologist Mansour Samadpour told Bloomberg Markets magazine. His company, IEH Laboratories & Consulting Group, specializes in testing water for shellfish farming.
This means that shrimp aren’t just raised in bacteria-rich waters, they’re also stored in it. That’s why eating raw or defrosted shrimp is so often associated with food poisoning and other gastrointestinal conditions.
To further complicate the issues, fish farms in China and elsewhere in Asia have begun feeding their tilapia and other fish with the dried feces of pigs and geese to cut back on the cost of fish feed.
“The manure the Chinese use to feed fish is frequently contaminated with microbes like salmonella,” says Michael Doyle, director of the University of Georgia’s Center for Food Safety.
This practice contaminates water and makes fish more susceptible to diseases, yet a growing number of farmers in China’s Guangdong province have adopted the harmful feed to keep up with fierce competition.
Around 27 percent of the seafood Americans eat comes from China and seafood shipments are often contaminated with harmful pathogens. Since 2007, FDA inspectors have rejected 1,380 loads of seafood from Vietnam because of filth and salmonella contamination. As far as Chinese shipments go, the FDA has rejected 820 seafood shipments since 2007, including 187 that contained tilapia.
“Even though most bacteria on shrimp would be killed during the cooking process, our test results raise real questions about how shrimp is raised, processed, and regulated,” Rangan said.
How to Safely Eat Shrimp
Just because some farmers aren’t respecting the rules, doesn’t mean you have to give up shrimp all together. All you have to do is look out for “wild” or “organic” seafood that carry the “Marine Stewardship Council” logo on their packaging. Although these tend to be more expensive, they’re a better choice for your health and for the environment.
Avoid buying seafood in Asian markets and make sure to only buy fish with a clearly labeled country of origin. If you can, avoid seafood from Asia altogether.
Just like any other animal product, make sure to handle raw shrimp with care and make an effort to keep it away from other foods and kitchen surfaces, diligently cleaning anything that may have come in contact with the food after use.