The Truth about Farm Raised Shrimp

The green dumpster behind Red Lobster was nearly empty when I lifted the lid. Through the effluvium of yesterday’s supper, way down, sat a couple of pretty blue boxes. I hitched myself over the rim, leaned in, and took one.

I am not a regular dumpster diver. I was driven by a hunger for knowledge. Inside the restaurant, where the décor, ambience, soundtrack—all but the smell—reeked of the sea, I asked the server who laid before me the first plate of Red Lobster’s “endless shrimp” where they came from.

“Farms,” she said.

“Where are these farms?” I asked.

“Different places.” She gave a shrug. “Do you want another beer?”

I ate only eight grilled shrimp from Red Lobster’s “endless” supply. Something was stuck in my craw. An hour before, I had been in a community hall in Brownsville, Texas, with forty-three angry, tearful American shrimpers. In a country awash in shrimp, they were going bankrupt. They had gathered to hear more bad news: severe new rules limiting what they could catch.

“What about Red Lobster?” I asked the group.

“Red Lobster!” one man shouted. “They’re our enemy. They haven’t bought a shrimp since the 1980s.”

The restaurant walls were covered with shrimp boats—striking photos of trawlers at docks, at sea, in sunset silhouettes. The Gulf of Mexico was a mile away. Yet, while I sat eating, real shrimp boats sat rusting, their outriggers raised as if surrendering.

The box from the dumpster gave me a clue: “Product of Ecuador. Farm Raised.”

A shrimp farm is a saltwater feedlot. There can be as many as 170,000 shrimp larvae in a 1-acre pond that is 1 to 2 meters deep. So-called intensive ponds can yield 6,000 to 18,000 pounds of shrimp in that acre in 3 to 6 months. (A good wheat yield is 3,600 pounds per acre.) Because of this density, the waste they swim in, and their susceptibility to disease, most farmed shrimp are treated with antibiotics, only some of them legal in the U.S. A wide array of poisons is used to kill unwanted sea life and cleanse ponds for reuse, creating what Public Citizen calls a “chemical cocktail.” In random sampling of imported shrimp, health officials in the U.S., Japan, and the European Union have found chloramphenicol, a dangerous antibiotic banned in food.

The industry acknowledges that 5 percent of the world’s mangroves, hundreds of thousands of acres, have been destroyed creating shrimp ponds. In some estuaries 80 percent of the mangroves are gone. A commons was privatized, ruining artisanal fishing and driving indigenous fishermen to work raising shrimp. By removing the thick coastal barrier of trees, shrimp farms have undoubtedly aggravated damage from hurricanes and tsunamis. And salt intrusion has sterilized once-fertile estuaries.

Even in the best-run farms, two to four pounds of sea life is caught and ground up as feed for every pound of shrimp raised. Mortality rates of 30 percent are common. The dead shrimp, shrimp excrement, and chemical additives are often flushed into coastal waters.

By the mid 1970s, farmed shrimp from South and Central America, at less than half the cost of Gulf shrimp, began arriving at Red Lobster restaurants—and everywhere else. All-you-can-eat shrimp dinners became a standard, filling both waistlines and Red Lobster’s coffers. That box of shrimp I retrieved from the dumpster cost $2.50 a pound, and sold, in my case, for $25 a pound, a markup that bettered the beer’s.

Quietly, farmed shrimp took over the market, its source hidden behind the motif of a picturesque but actually sinking shrimp fleet. By 1980, half of America’s shrimp consumption came from foreign farms. By 2001, shrimp passed canned tuna as America’s favorite seafood. Today, 90 percent of our shrimp—more than 1 billion pounds a year—come from foreign farms. Virtually any restaurant chain, from Captain D’s to Red Lobster, serves farmed shrimp. Foreign farmed shrimp was peddled for years by vendors at the National Shrimp Festival in Alabama—until they were caught—and at happy hour for the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council meeting in Birmingham, Alabama, in March 2005, where government officials finalized a ten-year freeze on twenty-seven hundred shrimp boat licenses. The sight of government biologists slurping Vietnamese shrimp after reining in American shrimpers was an irony sharper than cocktail sauce. Even in New Orleans, where a handful of high-end chefs brag about their Louisiana shrimp, imported shrimp are the norm in most restaurants. A new Louisiana law requires restaurateurs to tell the truth—if asked.

TO GET A SENSE of the pink tsunami on U.S. shores, I flew to Long Beach, California, the single largest shrimp port, where among the five million containers arriving each year are several thousand filled with shrimp, 265 million pounds of it in a year.

On the day I visited, 5 ships were docking with 9 containers—412,000 pounds—of shrimp from Peru, Ecuador, Venezuela, and China. One container, a semitractor load, holds an astounding amount. Laid out in a customs warehouse, boxes holding 30,000 pounds of shrimp covered a 12-by-100-foot area chest high. Based on our average consumption, this one container held a year’s supply of shrimp for 12,000 Americans.

The container in question had been seized and opened because of suspicions that the beautiful bags of store-ready “26/30” frozen raw shrimp, labeled “farm raised in Indonesia,” may, in fact, have come from China and been relabeled in Singapore, a common cat-and-mouse game that customs officials calls “transshipment.” A bag was dispatched to a government lab in Savannah, Georgia, to try a new sniffing tool that might determine its source. Transshipping is used to evade special import taxes or restrictions, such as one imposed on Chinese shrimp and four other species in 2007 after malachite green, gentian violet, and other carcinogens were found in farmed fish.

“It’s very, very difficult to prove a transshipment issue,” said Jeff DeHaven, the deputy director of fines, penalties, and forfeitures. So great is their volume of business that importers just walk away from seized containers, he said. Moreover, U.S. customs is concerned primarily with duty issues, not food safety. “We don’t look at that much shrimp,” admitted an enforcement chief.

The Food and Drug Administration, responsible for imported food safety, samples less than 1 percent of the 1 billion pounds, a “sorry” record, according to U.S. Representative John Dingell, who in 2007 chaired food safety hearings before the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Mindful of consumer fears fanned by poisoned seafood arriving from China, the Global Aquaculture Alliance—an industry group underwritten by Wal-Mart, Red Lobster, and multinational seafood importers—has written standards that, if enforced, could produce clean, safe shrimp without damaging people or the environment. But that will take years, admitted GAA president George Chamberlain. Only 45 shrimp farms are certified by the alliance—out of more than 100,000 worldwide.

A primary concern for people who eat farmed shrimp, particularly those who consume substantial quantities over a long period of time, is the usage of a range of antibiotics to prevent and treat bacterial conditions common in shrimp farms.  Chemical agents are used in aquaculture ponds as water and soil treatment compounds in order to control viral, bacterial, fungal and other pathogens; to induce plankton growth (fertilizers and minerals); and to inoculate the farmed shrimp larvae.  These chemicals include the following: therapeutants (antibiotics), various algaecides and pesticides, disinfectants, detergents and other water and soil treatment chemicals.  All of these are used in vast quantities by the aquaculture industry globally.

For decades, various diseases have devastated the shrimp industry throughout the producing nations by wiping out entire crops.  One of the most damaging is the White Spot Syndrome Virus (WSSV), which has been the most widespread, causing high mortality rates in many shrimp species and other crustaceans. Symptoms of WSSV include white spots on the body of the shrimp as well as a steady decomposition of the body, which can occur in as little as 10 days, making the crop unmarketable and causing economic set-backs.  Unregulated processing, use, and disposal of infected imported shrimp; or, the use of contaminated larvae in farming have caused the rapid spread of WSSV from its endemic regions to wild and cultured stocks of shrimp throughout the world. The WSSV can even survive freezing and consequently survives in previously-frozen farmed shrimp sold in the market.  The results of an investigation of shrimp sold in supermarkets in Boston published in January 2002 provided preliminary evidence that an appreciable proportion (4.7%) of the marketed shrimp were carrying WSSV. The scientists concluded that the virus can spread to the local natural environment, which constitutes a substantial risk.  As of yet, there has not been any evidence that there is a human variant of WSSV.  The potential impact on public health requires further investigation.

In efforts to protect their shrimp from the effects of WSSV and other pathogens, shrimp farmers worldwide turn to the chemical and pharmaceutical industries, although it is nearly impossible to control WSSV other than by destroying the entire infected crop. There are relatively few constraints on chemical usage in aquaculture in the countries where shrimp is farmed and many antibiotics are widely available from chemical and pharmaceutical suppliers.  The U.S. is comparatively strict in this respect, limiting the use of antibiotics in aquaculture to three drugs: oxytetracycline, sulfamerazine, and a drug combination containing sulfadimethozine and ormetoprim.

A host of antibiotics are widely used in aquaculture to stimulate growth and to reduce the incidence and effects of diseases caused by crowded, factory-farm conditions, not unlike the conditions found in chicken factories where antibiotics are also prevalent. The more antibiotics used, however, the more rapidly bacterial resistance develops, and this problem is reaching crisis proportions today.  When such resistance develops, bacterial growth is no longer stopped by the antibiotic, and thus the antibiotic is no longer capable of treating or curing the disease.  Increasingly more bacteria are becoming resistant not only to one, but many antibiotics, making it more difficult to combat bacteria that cause illnesses in humans.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) agrees that antibiotic resistance has become an increasing problem.  “Disease-causing microbes that have become resistant to drug therapy are an increasing public health problem.  Tuberculosis, gonorrhea, malaria, and childhood ear infections are just a few of the diseases that have become hard to treat with antibiotic drugs.” Not only is antibiotic resistance an increasing problem, but the resistant bacteria could potentially transfer resistance genes to other bacteria in what is termed, "horizontal gene transfer." 

These bacteria can also be transferred between and among animals and people. For example, in the United States, genes resistant to the antibiotic tetracycline have been found in bacteria in soil and groundwater downstream from two Illinois swine facilities that use antibiotics as growth promoters.  The finding shows the potential for spreading resistant organisms back into the food chain of animals and people.

Antibiotics are categorized according to how they act on the cells of the bacteria they target.  Among the most powerful class of antibiotics that has been widely used in shrimp aquaculture are those that block protein synthesis in the cells of pathogens, such as nitrofurans, phenicols, and tetracyclines.  Another widely used class of antibiotics, the quinolones, interferes with DNA replication and repair in the cells of bacteria.  The tetracyclines, especially oxytetracycline, and the quinolones, including oxolinic acid and flumequine, are among the most commonly used antibiotics in shrimp farming.  When disease infestations become severe, however, shrimp farmers turn to the powerful phenicols and nitrofurans.  The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned the powerful and potentially toxic chloramphenicol (one of the phenicols) in 1989 because of the risks of the development of antibiotic-resistance in human pathogens and a link with a rare and often fatal disease, aplastic anemia.  Chloramphenicol is highly toxic to humans, but the antibiotic is used to treat humans only in life-threatening situations when no other drug is effective.  Europe, Japan and many other countries have also banned the antibiotic in feed, but it is still permitted for specific veterinary treatments. Nitrofurans are also dangerous because of their potential carcinogenic properties and so are likewise banned for use in food-producing animals in the EU and the US  Being banned in consuming countries, however, does not mean these powerful and potentially dangerous antibiotics aren’t used in aquaculture in producing countries.  Although governments of some countries where shrimp farming is booming restrict its direct application in aquaculture, it is still often applied illegally, or indirectly applied by mixing it with imported fishmeal-based shrimp feeds, which leave chemical residues in the shrimp that are exported to the U.S. for human consumption.

The farmed shrimp antibiotic issue blasted into the news in Europe and subsequently in Japan, Canada, and the U.S. when, in late 2001 and into 2002, EU food authorities detected unacceptable levels of chloramphenicol and nitrofurans in imported shrimp from China, Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand and India. Several shrimp producers and exporters argued that the allegations were not true, that the products delivered were not produced using these drugs, or that the trace amounts were at such low levels that it was more likely picked up through environmental contamination, rather than the illicit use of drugs.  Some also argued that very low levels pose no risk to consumers, contrary to the zero tolerance standards.

TODAY, IF YOU LIVE more than a hundred miles from the Gulf Coast, the shrimp you eat most likely come from a foreign farm. You can tour these farms while standing at your supermarket seafood freezer and reading labels. The top ten importing countries are Thailand, Indonesia, Ecuador, China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Mexico, India, Bangladesh, and Guyana. The wholesale value of their shrimp is $4 billion a year.

Despite that income, citizens in the developing world have protested shrimp farms—and been killed for doing so. The Blues of a Revolution, a book published in 2003 by a consortium of environmental and indigenous groups, described Honduran shrimp farms ringed by barbed wire and watchtowers and armed guards. Between 1992 and 1998, in the Bay of Fonseca near large shrimp farms, “11 fishermen have been found dead by shooting or by machete injuries . . . no one has been brought to justice.”

One story from the book I cannot shake involved Korunamoyee Sardar, a Bangladeshi woman who, on November 7, 1990, joined a protest against a new shrimp farm near Harin Khola. She was shot in the head, cut into pieces, and thrown into a Bangladesh river. A monument stands where she was murdered. It reads: “Life is struggle, struggle is life.”

Red Lobster, which buys 5 percent of the world’s shrimp, is Bangladesh’s biggest U.S. customer. The restaurant did not respond to repeated requests for an interview. 


25 Comments on “The Truth about Farm Raised Shrimp”

  1. […] her article “The Truth about Farm-Raised Shrimp,” food safety advocate Milie Barnes reports that, of the one billion pounds of foreign shrimp […]


  2. Chester Cox says:

    we need to eat U S shrimp and not foreign shrimp there is plenty of shrimp in good o USA


  3. Excellent, thank you. I recommend that people not eat any animal or their discharges. Good for people, good for animals, good for the planet.


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