China exports most of the world's seafood, including shrimp, but it has a huge problem with antibiotic overuse that's threatening global safety.
There are a lot of reasons to stop eating shrimp. The production process is environmentally disruptive, destroying natural mangrove swamps to make way for manmade ponds. The industry relies on cruel and illegal slave labor practices, and the trawling methods used to catch shrimp are devastating to countless other marine species. But one of the most disturbing and important reasons to avoid shrimp is that of antibiotic resistance.
Most of the shrimp eaten in the United States comes from abroad, as the little pink shellfish has gone from being a luxury food product to a popular dietary staple. Overseas production is cheaper, often sold below market value, much to the anger of national shrimp farmers and fishermen; nor do overseas producers adhere to rules about aquaculture production that exist in North America.
Take China, for example. It provides 60 percent of the world’s farmed seafood, which means that a significant portion of sea creatures like shrimp and tilapia eaten by Americans likely comes from China. This is problematic because China uses dangerous amounts of powerful antibiotics in aquaculture and land-based agriculture. Unfortunately these two methods overlap, as pigpens are frequently located near to fish ponds and goose ponds. When the livestock pens are hosed down for cleaning, the residual feces and urine is flushed into nearby aquaculture ponds.
In a feature article on this topic, Bloomberg Business News explains why this is dangerous:
“The waste from the pigpens at the Jiangmen farm flowing into the ponds, for example, exposes the fish to almost the same doses of medicine the livestock get—and that’s in addition to the antibiotics added to the water to prevent and treat aquatic disease outbreaks. The fish pond drains into a canal connected to the West River, which eventually empties into the Pearl River estuary, on which sit Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Hong Kong, and Macau. The estuary receives 193 metric tons (213 tons) of antibiotics a year, Chinese scientists estimated in 2013.”
Bloomberg reports that the chemicals used at the Jiangmen farm are among the most powerful antibiotics in the world, including colistin, used as a last resort for humans. Earlier this year scientists announced the discovery of an American infected by a colistin-resistant superbug. It’s only getting worse. Residents of China have some of the highest drug resistance rates in the world, with 42 to 83 percent of healthy people carrying in their bowels “bacteria that produce extended-spectrum beta-lactamases, which create reservoirs of potential pathogens that can destroy penicillin and most of its variants.”
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration knows about the widespread contamination of Chinese shrimp and other seafoods, and in 2006 it tightened the regulations surrounding imports from China; but then it became evident that Chinese suppliers were simply transferring their seafood to Malaysia in order to hide their true origin. Bloomberg writes:
“The FDA alert has virtually halted Malaysian shrimp imports [as of April 2016]. But that doesn’t mean tainted Chinese shrimp aren’t making it into the U.S. Industry and trade experts say many companies transship Chinese shrimp by… creating disposable import companies that can simply fold, or reincorporate under another name, at the first sign of regulatory scrutiny.”
Now it appears that Ecuador is taking Malaysia’s place as an international transshipping hub.
All of this is to say that a package of shrimp on your supermarket shelf, though small, is a key player in the important fight against antibiotic resistance. Food is a crucial vector, and eating those chemicals will bring them into your body, making the battle even harder. It's better just to refuse.