Shrimp is the most commonly consumed seafood in the United States and the most highly traded seafood in the world, but this high demand has led to many environmental and human rights abuses in the fishing, farming and processing of shrimp. We’re routinely given little information about the shrimp we purchase and what the shrimp nutrition actually is, which is more important now than ever because shrimp is being impacted by several problems, including diseases, antibiotic use and environmental factors. (1)
Twenty-five percent of the seafood consumption in the United States is shrimp, and the average American consumes four pounds of shrimp every year. That may be because we consider it to be a healthy form of protein that’s low in calories, and that’s true for fresh, wild shrimp, but farm fish has proven to be unhealthy and toxic, making it among the worst seafood and fish you shouldn’t eat. In fact, it’s been proven to be even more toxic than farmed tilapia and catfish, which rank as the second and third most polluted foods from the sea.
Is Shrimp Healthy?
Because shrimp has become the most popular seafood in the United States, methods of intensive production began expanding in the 1970s. Rather than being caught at sea, large quantities of shrimp are grown in man-made ponds containing a mix of ocean and fresh water along the coast of countries such as Thailand, Indonesia and Ecuador. These shrimp are often referred to as “farmed,” and they may be labeled “farm-raised,” but the scary part is they’re often produced under unsafe and unhealthy conditions.
Research shows that eating fish that’s farmed abroad may lead to serious health conditions, such as neurological damage, allergies, and other infections and illnesses. These can occur from ingesting shrimp contaminated with pesticide residues, antibiotics or pathogens resistant to antibiotics, such as E. coli. These conditions offset virtually any benefits of shrimp nutrition, instead turning the shrimp nutrition into toxic substances for the body.
7 Reasons to Avoid Farmed Shrimp
1. 90 Percent of the Shrimp We Eat Is Imported (but We Don’t Know)
According to a report from Food & Water Watch, in 2006, more than 90 percent of the shrimp we eat was imported, with Thailand as the leading exporter, followed by Ecuador, Indonesia, China, Mexico and Vietnam. We have no way of knowing where the shrimp was produced, and nearly 50 percent of the shrimp found in grocery stores have no label because they’ve been processed and added to seafood medleys, exempting them from U.S. labeling requirements. Restaurants aren’t required to label seafood either, so we don’t know where the shrimp we order has been produced or if it’s fresh or farm-raised. (2)
2. Shrimp Farms Run Under Very Poor Conditions
In order to export large quantities of shrimp, shrimp farm operators stock their ponds to produce as much as 89,000 pounds of shrimp per acre. For comparison, traditional shrimp farms yielded up to 445 pounds per acre. Because the water is overcrowded with shrimp, it’s quickly polluted with waste, which can infect the shrimp with disease and parasites.
In order to solve this problem, shrimp farmers in Asia and South or Central America use large quantities of antibiotics, disinfectants and pesticides that are illegal for use in U.S. shrimp farms. The conditions have become so poor that reports show failure rates in shrimp farming as high as 70 percent to 80 percent. Shrimp disease outbreak has become a prominent and growing concern for shrimp farmers, and as a result, farmers increasingly rely on chemicals that are direct sources of pollution to the shrimp and environment. (3)
Although you would think the U.S. government would help stop contaminated shrimp from entering the country and being sold at our markets, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration only inspects less than 2 percent of seafood that’s imported into the United States. This means that we’re buying and eating farm-raised fish that contain antibiotic-resistant bacteria, antibiotics and pesticide residues.
3. Shrimp Is Commonly Misrepresented
According to a 2014 Oceana study, shrimp is often misrepresented, and consumers aren’t given the right information about where the shrimp comes from or if it’s wild or farmed. Researchers found that 30 percent of the 143 shrimp products tested from 111 vendors visited nationwide were misrepresented, while 35 percent of those 111 vendors sold misrepresented shrimp. Of the 70 restaurants visited, 31 percent sold misrepresented products, while 41 percent of the 41 grocery stores and markets visited sold misrepresented products. Here are the highlights of the study: (4)
- The most common species substitution was farmed whiteleg shrimp sold as “wild” shrimp and “Gulf” shrimp.
- Only half of the samples labeled simply “shrimp” were actually wild species.
- New York City has the highest amount of misrepresented shrimp at 43 percent. Products from Washington, D.C., and the Gulf of Mexico region were misrepresented about one-third of the time. In Portland, only 5 percent of products were misrepresented, the lowest rate among the regions investigated.
- Overall, 30 percent of the shrimp products surveyed in the grocery stores lacked information on the country of origin, 29 percent lacked information on whether it was farmed or wild, and one in five did not provide either, making it extremely difficult to nail the shrimp nutrition facts.
- The majority of restaurant menus surveyed did not provide the diner with any information on the type of shrimp, whether it was farmed or wild, or its origin.
4. Imported Shrimp Contains Antibiotic Drugs and Illegal Chemicals
Most of the shrimp that Americans eat originates from places without restrictions on illegal contaminants, such as dioxins, PCBs and other banned chemicals. In an effort to destroy the pathogenic bacteria that plague shrimp farms, the shrimp are given daily doses of antibiotics. The most common antibiotics given include oxytetracycline and ciprofloxacin, both of which are used to treat human infections and can increase the risk of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. (5)
A 2004 study published in Marine Pollution Bulletin included surveys on residues of trimethoprim, sulfamethoxazole, norfloxacin and oxolinic acid that were conducted in water and mud in shrimp ponds in mangrove areas of north and south Vietnam. The data showed that these antibiotics were found in all samples in both shrimp ponds and surrounding canals. (6)
A 2015 study published in the Journal of Hazardous Materials found the presence of 47 antibiotics in U.S.-purchased shrimp (as well as salmon, catfish, trout and tilapia). (7)
Farm-raised seafood has also been shown to contain significantly elevated rates of chemicals and contaminants detrimental to human health. Common chemicals found in fish and shrimp farms include:
- Organophosphates — Organophosphates contain carbaryl and have been linked to memory loss, headaches and are toxic to the nervous system. A study published in the Mount Sinai Journal of Medicine found organophosphates to be linked to toxicity in pregnant women and fetal death. (8)
- Malachite Green — Malachite green is an antifungal agent used on shrimp eggs that’s been linked to cancerous tumors in studies on mice. (9)
- Rotenone — Rotenone is used to kill off fish living in the pond before it’s stocked with young shrimp. If inhaled, rotenone can cause respiratory paralysis. A 2011 study published in Environmental Health Perspectives found that rotenone was positively associated with the development of Parkinson’s symptoms in mice. (10)
- Organotin Compounds — Organotin compounds are used by shrimp farms to shock the ponds and kill mollusks before stocking with shrimp. These chemicals mimic estrogen and alter the hormonal system, predisposing consumers to obesity. (11)
- All but one of the pesticides used globally in shrimp production are banned in the United States. Only a diluted form of formaldehyde, called formalin, is approved for U.S. shrimp farms. Still, animal studies show that formalin is a potential carcinogen. (12)
5. Shrimp Farming Is Destroying the Earth
Shrimp farming has proved to be fatal to fish. It routinely takes up to three pounds of wild-caught fish to feed and produce a single pound of farmed shrimp, which has caused fish populations to plummet.
Farming shrimp is also detrimental to the coastal lowlands that are used to create overpopulated fish ponds. According to research published Environmental Management in 2001, approximately 2.5 million to 3.75 million acres of coastal lowlands have been converted into shrimp ponds, comprising mainly salt flats, mangrove areas, marshes and agricultural land. The impact of shrimp farming of most concern is the destruction of mangroves and salt marches for pond construction. (13)
According to the World Wildlife Fund, these mangroves are vital for wildlife and coastal fisheries and serve as buffers to the effects of storms. Their loss has destabilized entire coastal zones, with negative effects on coastal communities. (14)
On average, an intensive shrimp operation only lasts for seven years before the level of pollution and pathogens within the pond reaches a point where shrimp can no longer survive. The abandonment of shrimp ponds is due to either drastic, disease-caused collapses or more gradual, year-to-year reductions in the productivity of the pond. (15) The major issue here is that the chemical inputs and waste from farming ponds are often released directly into the natural environment without any treatment, even in the case of shrimp disease outbreaks. This is a direct source of contamination to soil, rivers and coastal habitats.
6. Shrimp Contains Xenoestrogens
One of the preservatives used for shrimp is 4-hexylresorcinol, which is used to prevent discoloration in shrimp. Research published by the American Chemical Society found it to be a xenoestrogen, which means that it has estrogen-like effects and has been shown to increase the risk of breast cancer in women and reduce sperm counts in men. (16)
A 2012 study published in Environmental Health found that environmental exposure to xenoestrogens is associated with breast, lung, kidney, pancreas and brain cancers. Researchers found that there’s a significant correlation between exposure to xenoestrogens and increased cancer risk, and that they’re endocrine disruptors and carcinogens. (17)
7. Shrimp Is Linked to Unethical Labor Practices
An Associated Press investigation uncovered a slavery network in Thailand dedicated to peeling shrimp sold around the world. The investigation found that shrimp peeled by modern-day slaves is reaching the U.S., Europe and Asia. Hundreds of shrimp peeling sheds are hidden in plain sight on residential streets or behind walls with no signs in a port town an hour outside of Bangkok.
The AP found that one factory was enslaving dozens of workers and runaway migrants in the sheds, which held 50–100 people, and many were locked inside. U.S. Customs records show that the shrimp made its way into the supply chains of major U.S. food stores, retailers and restaurants. AP reporters went to supermarkets in all 50 states and found shrimp products from supply chains tainted with forced labor. (18)
Shrimp Nutrition Facts
When you look at shrimp nutrition facts, they don’t seem all that bad. Shrimp contains a good amount of protein, and it’s low in calories and high in certain vitamins and minerals like niacin and selenium.
It’s also important to note that shrimp is one of the most cholesterol-rich foods in the world. Four to five shrimp contain more than 150 milligrams of cholesterol, which is 50 percent of your daily recommended allowance. But research shows that moderate shrimp consumption does not negatively impact cholesterol levels. (19)
One of my major issues with even wild-caught shrimp nutrition is that they’re bottom dwellers who feed on parasites and skin that they pick off dead animals. These parasites then go into your body when you consume even the freshest shrimp. No amount of protein or vitamins outweighs the potential health risks of consuming both wild-caught and farm-raised shrimp, but if you do choose to eat shrimp anyway, wild shrimp is your safer bet.
How to Choose
Knowing the health issues that surround the farming and processing of shrimp, it’s important that consumers learn how to choose their shrimp more carefully if they do choose to buy and eat it. In its 2014 report on shrimp misrepresentation, Oceana suggests the following guidelines:
- Avoid farmed shrimp due to health and environmental impacts.
- If you purchase farmed shrimp, avoid shrimp caught in fisheries that are not responsibly managed, that have high rates of waste or discards or that are associated with human rights abuses.
- Actively choose shrimp caught from nearby wild populations in the United States rather than shrimp caught overseas.
Because most labels and menus don’t provide consumers with enough information on shrimp or shrimp nutrition to make such choices, following these guidelines may be difficult. For this reason, and because shrimp are bottom feeders, I suggest that you avoid eating shrimp completely. The health and environmental risks of eating shrimp outweigh the benefits. Instead of choosing shrimp, eat wild-caught salmon, which is full of omega-3 fatty acids and has a number of health benefits.
- The high demand for shrimp has led to many environmental and human rights abuses in the fishing, farming and processing of shrimp.
- Shrimp is impacted by several problems, including diseases, antibiotic use and environmental factors.
- There are several dangers to eating farm-raised shrimp. We don’t know where our shrimp comes from (and most of it comes from shrimp farms), there are illegal chemicals and antibiotics used in shrimp farms, our shrimp is often misrepresented, shrimp farms damage the environment, and they run under poor conditions.
- I believe that you should avoid eating shrimp completely and choose healthier, less controversial forms of fish like wild-caught salmon.