In testing a sampling of imported shrimp purchased from U.S. grocery stores, researchers at The Institute of Environmental and Human Health (TIEHH) at Texas Tech, found banned antibiotics in 10% of the samples. One of the antibiotics can cause genetic defects and cancer.
The tests were conducted at the request of ABC News, which was following up on the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) report that raised serious questions about the safety of imported seafood.
What They Found
In the positive samples, lab technicians found banned antibiotics enrofloxacin, chloramphenicol, and nitrofuranzone, which is a known carcinogen. The antibiotics were found in the muscle tissue—the part of the shrimp that is typically consumed.
Two samples from New York averaged 28 and 29 parts per billion (ppb) of nitrofurazone. The limit is 1 ppb. These samples were imported from farms in India and Thailand. Nitrofuranzone can affect the DNA of cells and result in genetic toxicity that is linked to cancer.
The antibiotic chloramphenicol was detected in one sample at 150 times the current FDA detection limits on prohibited antimicrobial agents in seafood. Trace amounts of enrofloxacin showed up in a sample purchased from a store in Washington, D.C.
Why You Should Worry
The U.S. imported more than 17.6 million tons of seafood in the last decade according to FDA and USDA data.
But only 2% of imported seafood is inspected and only .1 % is tested for banned drug residues according to the GAO report. This is especially alarming because 80% of all seafood consumed in the U.S. is imported. With regard to shrimp, the percentage is even higher. About 90% is imported and much of it is raised on coastal fish farms in Southeast Asia.
The GAO is particularly concerned about foreign fish farming operations as they are not held to the same standard as U.S. farms. Critics say that fish are raised in crowded contaminated conditions that require the use of antibiotics just to keep the fish alive. About half of all imported seafood comes from such farms.
What You Can Do
According to the national consumer advocacy group Food & Water Watch, imported coastal-farmed shrimp tops their list of “The Dirty Dozen” of seafood that fail to meet their criteria for safety or sustainability.
Their guide to buying seafood suggests these tips:
- Choose domestic over imported.
- Choose local foods over those shipped from far away.
- Choose wild versus farm-raised
- Ask if the species was caught by hook and line, handline, troll, jig or speargun. These methods cause less damage to the habitat and do not involve “bycatch” – fish caught unintentionally in nets.
- If you do purchase farmed seafood, choose seafood that has been raised in low- or no-output, recirculating systems. Tilapia, shrimp, sea bream and cobia are examples of fish that are or are soon to be farmed this way in the United States.
- Avoid large fish such as swordfish, bluefin tuna and king mackerel that are known to contain mercury, PCBs and antibiotics.
- Try a variety of seafood. This reduces your exposure to possible contaminants and species that have become over-popular choices.
Food and Water Watch