Tons of factory-farmed seafoods makes its way into American plates
Seafood from Asian farms that fed on a diet of pig feces and antibiotics is making its way into the American food chain after being approved for consumption in the United States.
In fact, most supermarkets and “all-you-can-eat” restaurants that offer cheap deals on seafood, most likely buy their “food” from these factory-style farms in Asia.
The “Endless Shrimp” deals on offer at Red Lobster almost certainly came from one such a farm, and the shrimp on your plate was raised solely on pig waste that contaminated with agricultural antibiotics.
Although the seafood gets through the red tape for approval to be consumed in the US, the farms where it was raised almost certainly wasn’t inspected by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Is that safe?
Large retailers like Walmart and national restaurant chains like Red Lobster owners Darden say yes.
This is because some of the seafood they buy displays the Best Aquaculture Practices label.
Who issues this label?
The Global Aquaculture Alliance, an industry collective—its board consists of representatives from Darden, of course.
Also on the board of representatives from Cargill, the Chilean salmon industry, and a huge farmed-shrimp importer called Eastern Fish Company.
Unsurprisingly, BAP standards for farmed fish placed near the bottom (16 of 20) in a 2012 ranking of aquaculture labels by the University of Victoria’s Seafood Ecology Research Group.
According to Mother Jones, Darden says it independently tests its shrimp for contaminants but declined to share its results; Walmart did not answer their questions about inspections.
But the responsibility for ensuring the safety of our food doesn’t fall to retailers and restaurants alone.
The oversight authority belongs to the FDA, and the task is massive. In 2011, Americans consumed 4.7 billion pounds of seafood, 91 percent of which was imported.
And yet the FDA only inspects a tiny amount of this giant haul: 2 percent at most. (The equivalent agency in Canada inspects 15 percent of imported seafood; in the European Union the figure is 50 percent.)
That’s worrisome because imported seafood has a spotty track record. According to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 44 percent of the 39 foodborne-illness outbreaks caused by imports from 2005 to 2010 involved seafood—more than any other type of food.
And then there’s the drug problem. Like US meat farms, Asia’s shrimp operations rely heavily on antibiotics to control diseases among creatures packed tightly together, and also to make them grow faster.
That creates the risk of antibiotic-resistant pathogens in the final product. In a study, FDA scientists tested 330 samples of shrimp farmed in Thailand—the No. 1 US shrimp supplier—and bought in Little Rock, Arkansas, supermarkets.
Sixty-seven turned up positive for strains of the bacteria Klebsiella that are resistant to a range of antibiotics—32 of them showed resistance to no fewer than eight different antibiotics.
The researchers concluded that “imported shrimp is a reservoir for multidrug-resistant Klebsiella,” which can trigger urinary-tract infections and pneumonia.
And it’s not just nasty bugs that can end up in our seafood.
Testifying before Congress in 2008, Don Kraemer, then-deputy director of the FDA’s Office of Food Safety, warned of “clear scientific evidence” that drug residues make it into the fish we eat. In 2011, the FDA tested just 0.1 percent of imported seafood products for drug traces.
In 2008, the agency tested only 34 shrimp samples for residues of nitrofurans—a class of antibiotics banned because they’re carcinogenic.
Six samples tested positive.
The FDA does inspect processing facilities in exporting countries, the most prolific of which are China, Thailand, Canada, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Ecuador.
But here, too, the program is lax. According to a scathing report by the Government Accountability Office, the agency had inspected just 1.5 percent of seafood processing facilities in the previous six years in China, the source of nearly a quarter of US seafood imports.
Meanwhile, in Vietnam, a Bloomberg Businessweek investigation discovered that some US-bound shrimp are stored in heaps of ice made from water teeming with bacteria.
And tilapia in a growing number of China’s fish farms literally feed on pig manure—even though it contains salmonella and makes the fish vulnerable to disease.
The Southern Shrimp Alliance, a trade group for the US wild-caught shrimp industry, identified three Vietnamese shrimp processors that were ordered to put their products through mandatory testing in Canada after authorities there found traces of fluoroquinolones, a banned antibiotic.
Yet all three can still export freely to the United States.
Another major Vietnamese shrimp supplier to the US, Soc Trang Seafood Joint Stock Company (which, incidentally, is BAP-certified), had three different shipments turned back by Japan due to the presence of banned chemicals—but the United States routinely welcomed its products.
It shouldn’t be left to each of us to protect ourselves. Just as the government inspects Red Lobster’s kitchens, so too should the FDA scrutinize the suppliers that keep them stocked with endless shrimp.