98% of our shrimp imports go uninspected

posted by Veronique Koch on 02 July 2013

When food is imported into the United States, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) typically is in charge of ensuring that it is free of disease and toxins through strict regulations. So why is it that 98% of the shrimp imports, as well as other seafood, go unchecked? Simply put, they are understaffed. Or to put it another way, we eat a lot of shrimp.

90% of the shrimp we eat is imported, usually from farms in Asia. This means they are raised in ponds and pens abroad, then quick frozen and flown around the world, including the United States. Once they arrive at US airports, some of the shipments are inspected. But given the high volumes of frozen shrimp coming into the US, it is virtually impossible for the FDA to keep up. This means that the shrimp we eat is at risk of being contaminated with anything from drug-resistant bacteria to veterinary grade medications.

I first became aware of shrimp imports while perusing the fish counter at my local supermarket. There were local pink shrimp on sale that day (fished from the Gulf of Mexico). But given what I had been learning about the devastating effects of shrimp trawlers, I decided to keep looking. Right next to the wild shrimp were big, succulent-looking Tiger shrimp. And where were they from? Southeast Asia. And next to their country of origin was one little word: farmed.

This is not to say that all farmed shrimp is bad, or even that all Southeast Asian shrimp is bad. In fact, the Seafood Watch Program recently gave a green “Best Choice” rating to a Southeast Asian shrimp farming company called Silvofish. This rating only evaluates the state of the fishery and the impact on the environment, however. What it does not do is tell us whether it meets the standards we have for food in this country.

Last year, studies found that a random sampling of imported shrimp contained antibiotics illegal in the US:

The Food Safety Modernization Act , which would grant the FDA more oversight for imported food inspections at the border, was signed into law in 2011, but unfortunately the FDA has fallen behind in implementing these new laws.

So the question is, which shrimp do you buy? Wild? Farmed? Or perhaps you move on to another part of the fish counter. Sardines, anyone?

We hope to answer some questions about shrimp with Raising Shrimp (coming to screens near you):


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