Some Imported Shrimp on Grocery Store Shelves are Contaminated with Antibiotics

By Veronique Greenwood | May 23, 2012 10:37 am


Most of us assume that by the time food arrives at the grocery store, it’s been checked for any chemicals that might harm us. That’s not necessarily the case: food manufacturers and federal employees test for some known culprits in some foods, but the search isn’t exhaustive, especially when it comes to imported items. Recently, scientists working with ABC News checked to see whether imported farmed shrimp bought from grocery stores had any potentially dangerous antibiotic residue, left over from the antibiotic-filled ponds in which they are raised. It turns out, a few of them did.

Out of 30 samples taken from grocery stores around the US, 3 turned up positive on tests for antibiotics that are banned from food for health reasons. Two of the samples, one imported from Thailand and one from India, had levels of carcinogenic antibiotic nitrofuranzone that were nearly 30 times higher than the amount allowed by the FDA. The other antibiotics the team discovered were enroflaxin, part of a class of compounds that can cause severe reactions in people and promote the growth of drug-resistant bacteria, and chloramphenicol, an antibiotic that is also a suspected carcinogen.

These findings aren’t entirely surprising. Last year, the US Government Accountability Office warned that imported farmed shrimp might be contaminated with dangerous drugs: they are raised in dirty, crowded pond operations that involve heavy use of antibiotics. And since foreign fish farms are not held to US regulatory standards, those antibiotics might include those that US fish farmers aren’t allowed to use, like nitrofuranzone, enroflaxin, and chloramphenicol. But the findings are nonetheless a little worrying, as 90% of the shrimp Americans eat comes from such operations, and only 2% of imported shrimp is inspected by the FDA. Clearly, even heavily contaminated shrimp can make it to grocery store shelves, though how frequently this happens is not known.

It’s worth pointing that this was a very small sample, and no conclusions can be drawn from it other than that, yes, sometimes contaminated shrimp are bought from grocery stores. But it’s jarring to be reminded that the health impacts of giving animals antibiotics instead of keeping them clean aren’t limited to breeding drug-resistant bacteria. The antibiotics can indeed make their way into us, perhaps bringing health risks you don’t normally associate with shrimp cocktail.

Image courtesy of muffet / flickr

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine
  • nightandday

    It would be good for consumers to know which batches of a product are those that were actually inspected. That would boost confidence on those particular items, be it shrimp, spinach or any other food. A premium price could be charged for that acknowledgement. Bonus for sellers paid for by the consumers willing to invest a few cents more to know their food is safe with higher security. A win-win. Plus it would encourage the FDA to inspect more, instead of less.

  • sgnewm

    The ABC piece is a great example of distortion of the facts. First of all it is nitrofurazone not nitrofuranzone. Not sure who the misspelling belongs to. Secondly 3 out of 30 is no reason to blackball an entire industry. Next, regardless of what GAO says, the levels of residues, if they were even really there, are so small that you could not eat enough shrimp to get a dose that would even remotely be considered harmful. To suggest that all shrimp farmers use antibiotics is patently absurd. Thailand happens to be one of the countries that very strongly regulates their use. Testing for nitrofurazone residues typically involves testing for a number of compounds, one of which is actually a naturally occurring metabolite and has nothing to do with nitrofurazone. False positives are the result. Consider that all food has naturally occurring carcinogens in them, whether it is a salad, a piece of fruit or the steak you charbroiled on your grill and that the US legally allows peanut butter to be sold with aflatoxin in it (the most potent liver cancer causing compound known to man). Consider as well that the US legally allows food to be sold with rat feces and hairs in it. Hope you get my drift here. No system is perfect and yes people use antibiotics when they should not. It is very unlikely (for all practical purposes the risk is so small to be zero) that any one who consumes farmed shrimp would be harmed by these materials. You are more likely to be harmed by what is present in food naturally and legally.

  • Ranger Jim Kirk

    And then, of course, you have all of the “small government” advocates that claim regulatory agencies such as the FDA, the EPA, et al, stifle “free enterprise” because the manufacturers have to spend more money to ensure that their products are safe…

    But I do agree, Nightandday, I’d be happy to pay a little more to ensure that my food (and my cat’s food) are safe to eat.

  • Gen

    I’m allergic to most antibiotics, are people like myself at risk of allergic reactions?

  • Ron Seiden

    True. Also, it would be nice if our domestic wild shrimp had greater exposure. It’s awfully hard to find it in the first place, and when you do it’s usually just one size or format (raw/cooked). Supermarkets presume that everyone shops for lowest price (only), but I think a lot of folks would buy domestic shellfish is it weren’t so darn hard to find…

  • Allergy

    I have a shrimp allergy/sensitivity and I suspect I’m allergic to some of these antibiotics they use, since I’m not allergic to all shrimp.

  • Foxinwinter

    It’s not the antibiotics i’m worried about. It’s the hepatitis, e.coli, shigella, salmonella, and other microorganisms th at are worrisome


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