Aquaculture: Poison that comes in shells

Date of publication : 1/4/2008
Source : The Island Online/Growfish
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Aquaculture is the farming of sea creatures for human consumption. It is done in ponds and adjacent to the sea. Shrimp aquaculture has expanded the fastest over the past two decades in Asia and Latin America. It tops the list of favourite sea food. It is important that you know the consequences of eating farmed shrimp.

By the time a shrimp arrives in the market, it has been injected with antibiotics, doused in pesticides, and fed chemical-laden food.

Shrimp farms are often dirty, overstocked ponds. Most shrimp get sick with viral and bacterial infections such as the White Spot Syndrome Virus, which causes high mortality rates throughout Asia. In order to keep them alive till they are sold, a range of antibiotics are used in shrimp farms. Chemicals used in aquaculture ponds to control infections are algaecides, pesticides, disinfectant and detergents. I am not going to talk about the staggering amount of pesticides, dioxins, organochlorines each shrimp has in its small body. This article is only about one antibiotic – of the more than 21 – used by the shrimp industry.

The shrimp producing countries are Indonesia, Bangladesh, China, India, the Philippines, Taiwan and some Latin American countries. India is the second largest producer of shrimp. For decades, diseases have devastated the shrimp industry. Shrimp farmers turn to the atom bomb of all antibiotics – chloramphenicol.

Chloramphenicol is considered to be a drug of last resort for humans, usually administered only in life-threatening situations when less potent antibiotics are ineffective (e.g., in the treatment of salmonella, anthrax, and typhoid). However chloramphenicol has been evaluated by the Joint FAO/World Health Organisation Expert Committee on Food Additives. That committee concluded that the compound can cause genetic damage, cancer specially leukemia and a fatal human disease called "aplastic anemia,"  in which bone marrow stops producing red and white blood cells. The onset may occur weeks or months after treatment with chloramphenicol has been discontinued. The frequency of the disease is greatest in Asia.

The FAO has warned that very low concentrations of chloramphenicol could be enough to trigger the fatal illness. Even amounts such as 3 parts per billion could trigger it off. Research consistently shows that any concentration of chloramphenicol is potentially lethal for humans and , it has not been possible to identify a safe level of human exposure to it. Governments around the world have established zero tolerance policies, which means no residues in food, food producing animals or feed products are permissible.

In 2001 EU food authorities detected unacceptable levels of chloramphenicol in imported shrimp from China, Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand and India and moved swiftly to ban any shrimp that tested positive. Consequently, each consignment of shrimp from China, India, Pakistan and Southeast Asian producers sent to the EU was subjected to strict testing to ensure there were no traces of chloramphenicol contaminant. Canada, Japan and the US moved to similar bans. In 2002, EU inspectors ordered the destruction of three large consignments of shrimp from India after chloramphenical was detected.

One would have thought that the shrimp producing countries would have stopped using this toxic drug. Not so. It continues to be used in the shrimp sold locally or exported. In spite of the fact that the US FDA only tests 1 to 2 % of all shrimp imported to the United States, it is still being detected.

In November 2001, an on-site inspection of Chinese shrimp production facilities by EU officials "revealed serious deficiencies of the Chinese control system relating to the use of banned substances".  In May 2002 the U.S. detected chloramphenicol in imported Chinese shrimp. EU inspection officials found repeated shipments of Chinese shrimp imports contaminated with chloramphenicol and ordered a ban of Chinese shrimp imports. In July 2004, the EU agreed to take Chinese shrimp only after the Chinese government guaranteed that it would test 100 % of Chinese shrimp exports. In 2006 the FDA blocked the sale of shrimp from China because of repeated instances of contamination. The F.D.A. said it decided to take the action after years of warnings that resulted in no signs of improvement. In 2006, F.D.A. officials went to China to inspect aquaculture operations and found "the residue control program ineffective"  with 15 percent of the samples contaminated.

Thailand claimed to have banned chloramphenicol in 1999 but the detection of the drug in Thai shrimp prompted a ban by the EU in 2007.

In 2004 Indonesia’s shrimps were found to be infected by viruses and contaminated by chloramphenicol.

From 2003 to 2005, Canada imposed a 100 percent inspection policy on seafood exports from Vietnam after Vietnamese seafood products repeatedly tested positive for chloramphenicol. Japan did it in 2006 and Russia in 2007.

Cambodia invited EU authorities to conduct an investigation of shrimp plants in the country in 2005. The EU officials found the processing facilities with "very poor hygiene situation";  and Cambodia’s process of certifying the food safety of export shipments was a sham. The EU continues to prohibit Cambodian seafood exports from entering Europe.

In early 2007, the EU completed an on-site review of seafood safety systems in Pakistan that revealed severe deficiencies in the country’s food safety controls. Based on these findings, the EU decertified all shrimp from Pakistan in 2007.

The EU’s lists on the Net shows that there have been continued findings of banned antibiotics including chloramphenicol in shrimp and prawn exports from India. In 2007 The Marine Products Export Development Authority (MPEDA) threatened to clamp down on farms that are selling shrimp from India that contain antibiotic residues. In a letter to exporters, whose shipments were rejected by authorities in the European Union because their shrimp had antibiotic residues, MPEDA said it would withdraw the permits granted to their processing plants and scrap their export licenses if any more shipments were rejected. In November 2007, MPEDA sent the letter to six companies in Andhra Pradesh, the centre of the country’s shrimp farming industry: Devi Fisheries Ltd, Devi Seafood Ltd, Welcome Fisheries Ltd, Surya Mitra Eximps Pvt. Ltd, Satya Sea Foods Ltd and Jagadeesh Marine Exports.

According to MPEDA’s letter, there have been rampant use of antibiotics such as chloramphenicol and nitrofuran on shrimp farms and the use of antibiotics damages "the very name and image of the country".
More rigorous testing methods in the US have detected Chloramphenicol in Bangladesh and Mexico shrimp .The FDA recognised, in a letter sent in response to Citizens Petitions, that "there is abundant evidence that chloramphenicol is still in widespread use abroad, particularly in Southeast Asia".

Raised in crowded and dirty ponds, with almost no quality control, shrimp develop in poor sanitary conditions, in ponds with high feces concentrations, banned antibiotics, and toxic chemicals. As a result, shrimp often contain harmful antibiotics, pesticides, salmonella, and filth. Drugs are widely available without prescription, and the government’s ability to test and follow-up on problems is limited. Some farmers try to maximize the output from their small plots by flooding produce with unapproved pesticides, pumping livestock with antibiotics and using human or chicken feces as food.

Every time you eat a shrimp you eat an antibiotic, specifically chloramphenicol. This will never change. The more antibiotics you eat, the more rapidly bacterial resistance develops. When such resistance develops, the antibiotic becomes incapable of curing the disease. Which means that next time you are ill, no antibiotic will help you. Disease-causing microbes that have become resistant to drug therapy are an increasing public health problem. Tuberculosis, gonorrhea, malaria, and childhood ear infections are just a few of the diseases that have become hard to treat with antibiotic drugs. Add to that the risk of cancer from the antibiotic itself: is the shrimp worth it?

Growfish Editor’s Note:

There is no doubt that pressure must be maintained to ensure the highest food standards are applied in the raising of seafood for human consumption. Increasingly import restrictions on contaminated product are having the effect of pressuring many countries to apply and enforce higher quality standards and the exit from the industry of those operators that cannot adjust.

To paint an entire world-wide industry that provides almost half the seafood consumed around the world each year with such a broad brush, based on out of date information and a few non-representative incidences, as is argued in this article, is as inaccurate as it is unfair.
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