Some imported farmed seafood is a toxic cocktail
Sarah Norrey has always been a health-conscious consumer. The health-care worker avoids processed foods, scrutinizes labels, and buys mostly organic produce. Until recently, she wouldn’t have hesitated to stock up on jumbo bags of frozen shrimp at Costco or to serve those shrimp rings at parties.
But the Vancouver mother of two admits that her jaw dropped when she discovered that much of the shrimp for sale in Canada is loaded with toxins.
“I had no idea,” Norrey says. “I’d look at the package and there were always preservatives, and I didn’t like that, but because of our budget, I’d still buy it because it’s so cheap. But after I learned about the antibiotics and chemicals, I thought, ‘No, no, no, no, no.’ I remember being completely stunned that it’s okay to put that in our grocery-store freezer. To me, that’s unacceptable.”
Have a look at the frozen shrimp in your local grocery store and you’ll see that most of it is imported from developing countries in Southeast Asia and, increasingly, Latin America. Millions of small producers in the world’s poorest countries produce 99 percent of the world’s farmed shrimp, according to the Fisheries and Aquaculture Department, a division of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, with exports to the rest of the world amounting to almost $9 billion a year.
Advocacy groups have been pushing for years to stop the damage that so many of these farms do to the environment—vast expanses of mangrove forests and tropical coastal wetlands have been destroyed—and for the rights, health, and safety of so many underpaid and poorly treated workers to be established and protected. However, less attention has been paid to the potential human health effects of consuming certain imported, farmed shrimp.
Much of this shrimp is bred and raised in shallow ponds that are clogged with waste in countries that have far less rigorous restrictions in the use of antibiotics, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, feed additives, and carcinogenic chemicals in the preparation of food products. The relatively unrestricted use of antibiotics, including some dangerous ones, encourages the proliferation of antibiotic-resistant microbes, which contributes to the risk of future disease outbreaks in humans where previously effective antibiotics may be of little or no use.
“Intensive shrimp farming is an environmental disaster,” says UBC Fisheries Centre director Daniel Pauly. “In addition, aquaculture from Southeast Asia—from Thailand and Vietnam and other countries—is exposed to all kinds of chemicals for the simple reason that shrimp are farmed in systems that are heavily contaminated. These shrimps are farmed in intensive conditions at very high densities. Antibiotics are used at almost all levels of the production system to prevent bacterial infections.
“Everything that comes from intensive farming offers the opportunity for pathogens, for bacteria, and for viruses that are fought against with antibiotics, but in the end, the pathogens always win,” the acclaimed marine biologist adds. “Antibiotics become ineffective after a while, so new ones have to be introduced, and this is a big problem.”
Antimicrobial resistance reduces the effectiveness of treatments because patients remain infectious longer, potentially spreading resistant microorganisms to others. Infections caused by resistant microorganisms also often fail to respond to standard treatment, resulting in prolonged illness and greater risk of death.
High levels of bacteria of the genus Vibrio, several species of which are pathogens and are resistant to antibiotics, have been found in shrimp ponds. One type of Vibrio is the most common cause of food poisoning from seafood in the United States.
When aquaculture diseases prove unbeatable, some shrimp farmers turn to highly toxic antibiotics known as phenicols and nitrofurans. Chloramphenicol can lead to a rare and often fatal disease called aplastic anemia, while nitrofurans are linked with unusual but fatal lung problems and a severe intestinal disease. These drugs have been banned in Canada, but that doesn’t mean food-producing countries don’t use them. Last year alone, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) found nitrofurans in seafood imported from China, India, and Indonesia.
Then there are the pesticides used in shrimp aquaculture. According to Public Citizen, many farms in the world’s top shrimp-producing countries—which include Malaysia, the Philippines, Ecuador, and Brazil—use chlorinated, fluorinated, and organophosphate pesticides. Add in detergents, water-control chemicals, and dioxins found in fish meal, and you’ve got what the U.S.-based consumer-advocacy organization founded by Ralph Nader calls a “chemical cocktail”.
The CFIA has also found scores of chemicals “not accepted to be used” in seafood from abroad, including triphenylmethane dyes in products from Bangladesh, sulfonamides in items from Vietnam, phosphates in products from China, and “non-permitted additives” in seafood from China and Indonesia, among many others.
Research into the human-health impact of exposure to environmental toxins is growing, with effects ranging from birth defects and infertility to weakened immune functioning and cancer.
“Many of these [pesticides] are known endocrine disruptors,” West Vancouver naturopathic doctor Justin Lafreniere tells the Georgia Straight. “In systematic reviews of the literature on this subject, there are strong positive associations with a variety of solid tumours, blood and immune-cell cancers, and genotoxic effects. Furthermore…many pesticides, PCBs [polychlorinated biphenyls], and detergents persist unchanged in breast milk, which can have significant effects on developing infants and children.
“While there’s generally fairly adequate research on the health effects of acute poisoning from many of these industrial food chemicals, there really isn’t any evidence to support safe levels of chronic exposure,” he adds.
The CFIA inspects imported fish and seafood to prevent the marketing of unsafe or mislabelled products. If it finds products that don’t meet Canadian regulatory requirements, it then performs mandatory inspection of subsequent imports of the same type of fish until there have been four consecutive acceptable inspections.
“The agency conducts approximately 14,000 analyses of imported fish and seafood products annually, and this includes shrimp,” says CFIA media-relations agent Elena Koutsavakis. “This risk-based approach provides the CFIA a high rate of confidence in the compliance level and safety of imported products.”
However, the CFIA only inspects a tiny portion of the seafood shipments that come from abroad, with “an overall sampling target of 5 per cent of the estimated annual imported lots”, according to its website. And participation in its enhanced quality-control program for seafood importers is voluntary.
“The CFIA is in a conflict of interest,” says Salmon Arm family doctor Warren Bell, who’s a member of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment. “It promotes food production as well as addressing food safety. Generally speaking, it tends to support high-volume and centralized food production over small-scale, distributed systems. As a consequence, estimates of toxicity are generally characterized as low, and inspection services are minimized or in many areas nonexistent.
“Governments all over the world also actively suppress bad news about industrial practices in the interest of short-term financial gains,” he adds.
Although shrimp farming in poor countries is rife with problems, the tide is starting to turn within the industry itself. For example, the St. Louis, Missouri–based Global Aquaculture Alliance was founded to help guide the aquaculture industry toward sustainability. It has established a code of practice and, in 2003, developed certification standards called Best Aquaculture Practices (BAP). According to GAA president George Chamberlain, the policies have been “widely adopted”, with satellite imagery in Honduras and Nicaragua showing the expansion of previously devastated mangrove areas there.
“GAA standards also expressly prohibit use of banned antibiotics and chemicals in the hatchery, farm, feed mill, or processing plant,” Chamberlain tells the Georgia Straight. “Facility inspections are conducted by third-party auditors from ISO [International Organization for Standardization]-accredited certification bodies. About 25 percent of the shrimp consumed in the U.S. and Canada is BAP-certified.”
Some companies are taking their own measures. High Liner Seafood, Canada’s biggest retail seafood company, sources warm-water shrimp strictly from suppliers who meet those BAP standards.
“High Liner feels a profound responsibility to our oceans and our planet, which is why we made a commitment in 2010 to reach 100-percent sourcing from sustainable resources by the end of 2013,” Bill DiMento, the company’s director of sustainability, says from his Danvers, Massachusetts, office. “We require that our packers have traceability of the shrimp they supply to us, back to the ponds and farms. Packers contract with supplying farms and packers do continuous testing of the feed, water quality, and shrimp during the life cycle of the species. Before shrimp are harvested, packers perform special testing to assure no therapeutics or banned substances were used or are detected.”
High Liner also participates in the CFIA’s voluntary Quality Management Program plan for seafood importers, which involves independent testing for the 53 drugs and pesticides on the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s Aquaculture Therapeutant Residue Monitoring List.
“Finished products are regularly sampled and sent to outside certified, government-approved laboratories for microbiological and chemical testing,” DiMento says.
With the establishment of best practices such as those by the GAA, improvements are happening in the way shrimp is being farmed abroad, according to Iddya Karunasagar, senior fishery officer at the Fisheries and Aquaculture Department within the FAO of the United Nations. But there is still a long way to go.
“In general, we’re seeing a market decline in the number of import-refusal reports because of antibiotics from the European Union, the U.S., and Canada,” Karunasagar says on the line from his Rome office. “Many countries are going for certifications, for best practices, to improve their chances of getting into the market. We need to continuously drive home this message that some of these antibiotics are not to be used in any producing countries. Adopting good practices…can minimize the disease problem, and with best-management practices, the need for chemicals is drastically reduced.”
In the meantime, doctors like Salmon Arm’s Warren Bell suggest health-conscious consumers be vigilant when it comes to finding out where their food comes from.
“Look at the label,” Bell says. “If it doesn’t come from your neighbourhood or a grower that you know personally, you’ll have no clear idea about contaminants, growing practices, faraway environmental degradation, or the treatment of the workers who grow, prepare, or otherwise produce what you have in your hand.
“Don’t be naive,” he adds. “Unless you know that something is safe, free of contaminants, and grown or prepared safely by workers who are treated well, the chances are that it is not.”