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There's Something Fishy About Your Shrimp

Pile of Fresh Shrimp

Story at-a-glance -

  • 30 percent of shrimp products sold in the US are misrepresented and do not contain the type of shrimp stated on the label
  • Your “Gulf” shrimp may actually be farm-raised and could contain a mix of shrimp species (including one intended to be an aquarium pet)
  • Over 90 percent of US-consumed shrimp come from industrial shrimp farms off the coasts of Thailand, Vietnam, Ecuador, and other countries, which are plagued with the same problems as land-based confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs)

By Dr. Mercola

Shrimp tops the list as America’s favorite seafood,1 but if you think that shrimp is being harvested off US shores and brought, fresh, into market – Forrest Gump style – you’re being misled.

“American shrimpers are a dying breed these days because they can’t compete with cheap, foreign imports,” Food & Water Watch reported.2

Today, the vast majority of shrimp (over 90 percent) come from industrial shrimp farms off the coasts of Thailand, Vietnam, Ecuador, and other countries, which are plagued with the same problems as land-based confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs).

Chances are, the delicious shrimp cocktail you’re splurging on is loaded with antibiotics and chemicals because that‚ what goes into the cramped, dirty ponds made to mass-produce shrimp. Doesn’t sound yummy, does it?” Food & Water Watch states…3

What’s more, what you see on the label isn’t always what you get, as many shrimp products are mislabeled and completely misrepresented.

30% of Shrimp Products Are Misrepresented

The ocean conservation group Oceana tested 143 shrimp products from 111 US grocery stores and restaurants. Their DNA tests showed that 30 percent of shrimp products are misrepresented and 15 percent were mislabeled in regard to production method (farm-raised or wild-caught) or species.

Among the unsettling findings, farmed species were often labeled as “Gulf shrimp,” species were often mislabeled (or mixed together in one bag), and there was even a type of shrimp that’s an aquarium pet (not intended for consumption) in a bag of frozen shrimp salad!4 Of the 20 shrimp species identified, 40 percent were not previously known to be sold in the US.

The mislabeled shrimp were sold at both national and regional supermarkets (as well as smaller grocery stores), chain restaurants, and even high-end eateries. About 30 percent of the samples also lacked any labeling on country of origin and 29 percent didn’t state whether the shrimp was farm-raised or wild.

Ironically, if you’re looking for wild-caught shrimp, you may be best off purchasing products labeled simply as “shrimp,” as two-thirds of such packages contained wild-caught Gulf shrimp, while more than one-third of those labeled as “Gulf shrimp” were actually farm-raised! According to Oceana:5

“…consumers are often provided with little information about the shrimp they purchase, including where and how it was caught or farmed, making it difficult, if not impossible, for them to make informed choices.”

In Oceana’s infographic below,6 you can see where shrimp products were most likely to be misrepresented. While each area tested had problems, New York fared the worst, followed by Washington D.C.

Shrimp Production Infographic Preview

It’s Not Only Shrimp That’s ‘Fishy’

Seafood misrepresentation, mislabeling, and fraud are rampant, and it’s not only shrimp that you should be wary of. Last year, Oceana collected more than 1,200 seafood samples from 674 retail outlets in 21 states, which were then genetically tested to determine if they were honestly labeled.

As it turned out, the vast majority of the fish were not at all what they were claimed to be... Overall, a full one-third (33 percent) of the fish samples were mislabeled -- substituted for cheaper, less desirable, and/or more readily available fish varieties.7 The results showed:

  • Mislabeling was found in 27 of the 46 fish types tested (59 percent)
  • 87 percent of fish sold as snapper was actually some other type of fish
  • 59 percent of tuna was some other type of fish
  • 84 percent of “white tuna” sold in sushi venues was actually escolar, a fish associated with acute and serious digestive effects if you eat just a couple of ounces
  • Grouper, halibut, and red snapper were sometimes substituted with king mackerel and tile fish, two types of fish the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advises pregnant women and other sensitive groups to avoid due to high mercury content

According to Oceana,8 more than 90 percent of the seafood consumed in the US is imported, yet only 1 percent of imports are inspected for fraud, which may explain this clearly out-of-control situation. To put is simply, no one is minding the store…

“Our findings demonstrate that a comprehensive and transparent traceability system – one that tracks fish from boat to plate – must be established at the national level.

At the same time, increased inspection and testing of our seafood, specifically for mislabeling, and stronger federal and state enforcement of existing laws combatting fraud are needed to reverse these disturbing trends. 

Our government has a responsibility to provide more information about the fish sold in the U.S., as seafood fraud harms not only consumers’ wallets, but also every honest vendor and fisherman cheated in the process – to say nothing of the health of our oceans.”

As you might suspect, some of the largest seafood vendors are those who want to continue keeping you in the dark about what type of seafood you’re actually eating. As Jerald Horst, a seafood writer and former state fisheries specialist told the New York Times:9

There's a lot of pressure from the major institutions for them [the government] not to do it [enforce proper labeling]… They want the freedom to do 'creative marketing.’”

It’s Important to Know Where Your Seafood Comes from

Fish has always been the best source for the animal-based omega-3 fats EPA and DHA, but as levels of pollution have increased, this health treasure of a food has become less and less viable as a primary source of beneficial fats.

Most major waterways in the world are contaminated with mercury, heavy metals, and chemicals like dioxins, PCBs, and other agricultural chemicals that wind up in the environment.

This is why, as a general rule, I recommend limiting your consumption of fish.

However, I do make certain exceptions depending on species and location. Generally, the larger the fish the longer it has lived, and the more time it has had to bioaccumulate toxins like mercury from the ocean. This is why Bluefin and Ahi tuna, swordfish, walleye, marlin, king mackerel, orange roughy, and shark, which are all long-lived fish at the top of the food chain, should not be consumed.

Farm-raised seafood should also be avoided. It is more likely to contain contaminants, including not only pollutants but also antibiotics, pesticides, and other chemicals used during “farming.” It’s also detrimental to the environment, as farmed fish may spread disease to wild fish, and concentrated fish waste and uneaten feed further litter the sea floor beneath these farms, generating bacteria that consume oxygen vital to shellfish and other bottom-dwelling sea creatures. Farmed fish waste promotes algal growth that that harms the water's oxygen content, posing risks to coral reefs and other aquatic life.

Certain Types of Seafood Are Still Healthy…

As for which types of seafood I still recommend, one is authentic, wild-caught Alaskan sockeye salmon, the nutritional benefits of which I believe still outweigh any potential contamination. The risk of sockeye accumulating high amounts of mercury and other toxins is reduced because of its short life cycle, which is only about three years. Additionally, bioaccumulation of toxins is also reduced by the fact that it doesn't feed on other, already contaminated, fish.

The second exception is smaller fish with short lifecycles, which also tend to be better alternatives in terms of fat content, so it's a win-win situation — lower contamination risk and higher nutritional value. A general guideline is that the closer to the bottom of the food chain the fish is, the less contamination it will have accumulated (assuming it is wild-caught and not farm-raised). So if you’re a seafood lover, try to choose most of your fish from this group, which includes:

As an added precaution, whenever I eat fish I make sure to also take chlorella tablets. The chlorella is a potent mercury binder and if taken with the fish will help bind the mercury before you are able to absorb it, so it can be safely excreted in your stool.

How to Avoid Getting Scammed When Purchasing Seafood

Just as you can seek out locally produced eggs, meat, and produce, you can seek out local seafood. This is more challenging if you don’t live near the coast. However, many inland areas do have seafood markets that are dedicated to finding fresh, high-quality seafood that is brought in daily. Talk to the owner directly, who should be able to give you details about where the seafood comes from and how it is produced. Another alternative is to look for seafood that bears the following labels, which signify more sustainable products:

  • Marine Stewardship Council (MSC): The MSC label on wild-caught fish identifies seafood that is caught using sustainable, eco-friendly methods.
  • Fishwise: The Fishwise label identifies how the fish was caught, where it came from and whether the fish is sustainable (or environmentally threatened).
  • Seafood Safe: The Seafood Safe label involves independent testing of fish for contaminants, including mercury and PCBs, and recommendations for consumption based upon the findings.

In addition, Oceana offers the following tips for protecting yourself against rampant seafood fraud:10

  • Ask questions. Consumers should ask more questions, including what kind of seafood it is, if it is wild or farm-raised, and where, when and how it was caught.
  • Check the price. If the price is too good to be true, it probably is, and you are likely purchasing a completely different species than what is on the label.
  • Purchase the whole fish. When possible, purchase the whole fish, which makes it more difficult to swap one species for another.