Healthy Oceans. Healthy Communities.

Curb Your Enthusiasm For Shrimp Cocktail?

April 1, 2019

Living Oceans is working with retailers to assess the risk associated with shrimp procurement, in the wake of a recent investigative report by CBC’s Marketplace.  That report discovered antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria on frozen shrimp sampled from Canadian food retailers, including bacteria commonly associated with human diseases. 

The World Health Organization (WHO) states antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is an increasingly “serious threat” to human health. The overuse and misuse of antibiotics, both in agriculture and aquaculture, have been identified as contributors to AMR.

Sustainable Seafood Campaigner Kelly Roebuck investigated antibiotic use in global shrimp farming practices. looking at Seafood Watch shrimp assessments and the assessment criteria of various eco-certifications.  Her findings will make you wary of buying shrimp unless the country of origin is clearly marked.

“Around half of all shrimp in the Canadian marketplace is imported. The majority comes from Asian countries such as Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. Some shrimp are also imported from Latin America countries such as Ecuador, Honduras or Mexico.   Most Asian countries were found to have either ineffective antibiotic regulations or none at all. Evidence of illegal use of antibiotics, including those listed as “critically and highly important” by WHO, occurs in a number of shrimp-producing countries. Yet, only rarely is the country of origin marked on the product label,” said Kelly.  “With the majority of shrimp ranked as ‘red’,  only a few of the products from these countries earns a ‘green’ or ‘yellow’ ranking from Seafood Watch -  and then only for certain production methods.  Without full disclosure of which species, where and how the product was produced, consumers can’t easily identify the more sustainable seafood products.” This is largely due to Canada’s weak seafood labelling laws which, unfortunately, do not require such vital information be provided to consumers.

Eco-certifications might be considered to be protection against dangerous production practices, but even that is not always so.  Only the Aquaculture Stewardship Certification’s (ASC) shrimp standard and Naturland (organic aquaculture standard) eco-labels promise antibiotic-free product.  Under other eco-certification and organic schemes, antibiotic use may be regulated only by national law (where it exists) and no limitations on the quantity or nature of the antibiotics used is imposed by the eco-label’s standards.

“What this means is that there are some shrimp farms where it is routine to use antibiotics considered to be important or even critical to human health; and in places such as Vietnam, where the drugs can be obtained without prescription, to use them in unknown quantities,” said Kelly.  “This is the perfect kind of breeding ground for AMR superbugs.”

Green ranked farmed shrimp does exist. For example, shrimp from closed recirculating aquaculture systems are considered a “Best Choice” (green).  And while some pond-farmed shrimp from certain regions are yellow-ranked as they are believed to use low to moderate quantities of antibiotics (for example South and Central America); yet still, these regions can use types of antibiotics that are important/critical to human health.  Therefore, yellow ranking is no guarantee that superbugs aren’t being created by the aquaculture techniques.

While Canada prohibits the use of antibiotics in shrimp culture and does some testing of imported product, Marketplace learned that only about 5 percent of imports are actually tested, leaving a huge gap for antibiotic-laden product to enter the country.  As for AMR superbugs:  there is no testing at all for these.

This leaves both retailers and consumers with a conundrum.  The market in North America for shrimp and prawn is huge, so retailers naturally want to offer a consistent supply; but very few places can reliably supply safe and sustainable product. “Even operations that avoid using antibiotics are associated with other conservation concerns, such as depletion of wild stocks and the degradation of mangrove swamps,” Kelly observes. “Waiting for wild B.C. shrimp and prawns and accepting that this is a seasonal treat is probably the best answer.  It’s hard to know what else to do, beyond curbing your enthusiasm for the tasty crustaceans.”

But the issue isn’t exclusive to farmed shrimp. Antibiotics is regularly used in other cultured seafood, from pangasius (catfish), to tilapia and even farmed salmon in B.C. and Chile. “Perhaps yet another reason for us to be supporting the real unsung sustainable heroes of the aquaculture world – bivalves and seaweed -which among other environmental benefits, do not require antibiotics at all,” concludes Kelly.