INTRODUCTION: In the U.S., shrimp is the single most popular seafood item, accounting for 3.6 of the 14.5 pounds of per capita seafood consumption. In 2013, 1.1 billion pounds of shrimp sold in the U.S. were imported from foreign aquaculture operations, representing $5.3 billion. In order to increase levels of production, intensive systems have been developed to raise shrimp. As the name suggests, those operations produce more shrimp in smaller spaces and do so by adding feed as well as a variety of antibiotics and pesticides to limit the growth of bacteria and parasites that can cause disease in crowded conditions. The systems can also be subject to complete collapse when disease overtakes them. In addition to creating poor conditions for the shrimp themselves, those types of unsustainable systems can cause many public health problems, including harm to the environment and to workers, and the overuse of antibiotics, including those critical for human medicine.
Though many other countries allow the use of antibiotics in shrimp farming, no antibiotics are approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use in shrimp farming. The FDA does permit licensed veterinarians to prescribe some antibiotics for use in shrimp farming in the U.S. (through a mechanism known as extra-label use) and residue tolerances are applied to domestic, farmed shrimp. However, the FDA does not permit any antibiotic residues for imported shrimp. If the FDA finds residues of any antibiotics in just one sample from an imported shipment, the whole shipment would be rejected. Unfortunately, the FDA conducts laboratory testing on very few samples. In fact, in 2014, only 0.7 percent of shrimp import lines were tested.
As is the case in any situation in which antibiotics are used, it has been shown that the use of antimicrobial agents in shrimp farming can select for bacteria resistant to the drugs used as well as to similar antimicrobials in the same class of drugs. Antimicrobial resistance is a major public health crisis. The national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the World Health Organization, and other medical organizations have stated that drug-resistant bacteria are currently a bigger threat to world health than AIDS, and the CDC’s Threat Report 2013 states that a minimum of 2 million illnesses and 23,000 deaths annually can be attributed to antibiotic resistance in the U.S.
Chemical- and drug-intensive shrimp aquaculture systems are not sustainable. The use of chemicals and drugs is a shortterm, band-aid solution for problems that occur due to overcrowding, poor management and inadequate hygiene. Conditions that give rise to higher bacteria prevalence and more antibiotic-resistant bacteria have other adverse effects on public and environmental health.
In order to illustrate the problems with shrimp production, we report here the results of our extensive testing of retail shrimp for bacteria, antibiotic resistance in bacteria present, and drug residues. We will also discuss the conventional practices for raising shrimp and how the FDA regulates imported shrimp.
We believe that farmed food should be produced in a way that does not rely on drugs and chemicals to maintain health. A sustainable farming system relies on good hygiene and health-promoting management practices, rather than on chemicals and drugs that mask underlying problems and can adversely impact the environment, public health, and ultimately personal health.
It is possible to raise shrimp in a more sustainable manner. This report, by discussing test results and reviewing labels found on shrimp, will help readers find more sustainably produced shrimp.