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The big challenge in making farmed shrimp safe to eat


Moe Doiron/Moe Doiron/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

If you're on the hunt for a new diet trick to help you navigate the sea of holiday party menus on the horizon, you may want to consider cutting out shrimp.

Do it and you're likely to save more than just inches from your waistline: you'll know for certain that you're not slurping down a cocktail of harmful antibiotics and chemicals federal food inspectors have been finding in shrimp imported from south Asia.

Recent sample checks on Thai imports have uncovered residues of antibiotics deemed illegal for food production in Canada and the United States. They're also supposed to be illegal in Thailand, a global shrimp farming giant that pledged years ago to flush drugs out of its system, which yields 550,000 tons of shrimp per year.

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Although the Canadian Food Inspection Agency only scans a fraction of incoming seafood - five per cent is the agency's target - inspectors are still finding tetracyclines (antibiotics commonly used to treat acne) nitrofurans (an antimicrobial drug and known carcinogen banned in Canada) and fluoroquinolones (broad-spectrum antibiotics used in human medicine) in the shipments they test. None should be consumed by humans.

But how often are we swallowing them unknowingly?

It's impossible to know for certain.

"We can't inspect one hundred per cent of every piece of fish that comes in the country, otherwise there won't be anything to eat," said Jeanelle Boudreau, a fish policy officer with the CFIA's fish and seafood network. The agency is constantly adjusting its inspections to focus on "areas where there might be more issues for non-compliance," she said.

Imported shrimp products have a long history of familiarity with that list.

Demand for cheap shrimp in the U.S. and Canada exploded over the course of the last decade with the advent of low-cost food retailers. As their saturation ballooned, so did the network of shrimp farms across China, Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam that were scrambling to supply the fleshy delicacies - and riding the economic boom that resulted.

The lack of sustainability in the industry - and its antibiotic-heavy methods for combating disease in intensive operations - was for many years an afterthought.

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But then the international outcry began. In response, the Thai government instituted a ban on antibiotic use and certain unsustainable farming practices (although there is skepticism over how strictly that ban is enforced).

Large shrimp distributors also climbed on board when Wal-Mart began throwing its considerable market weight around.

In 2006, the international chain announced it would only source shrimp from Thai farms that adhere to sustainability standards drafted by the Global Aquaculture Alliance (GAA), a U.S.-based industry group that counts Red Lobster among its members.

"Wal-Mart is an absolute mammoth in terms of global seafood and fisheries purchasing. The mere fact that they committed to being green has had a huge domino effect on the market," said Corey Peet, an aquaculture consultant based in Thailand. He is currently coordinating the Shrimp Dialogues, a global, multi-stakeholder effort led by the World Wildlife Fund to devise more impartial certification standards for responsible shrimp farming.

Four years later, Wal-Mart's decision has had some positive impacts on the shrimp farming community, where a slow but steady shift to reform harmful practices is under way. But the change hasn't been revolutionary, said Mr. Peet.

"The challenge Wal-Mart has is their business model depends on them taking advantage of environmental and social subsidies in order to maximize their profits. That model is not so conducive to sustainability," he said, adding: "I applaud them for trying."

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More notable is the impact Wal-Mart's decision to focus on sustainability has had on other retailers and buyers around the world, many of which have now become versed the issue. They've also helped to propel a broader push for standards and certification schemes to help producers ensure their supply networks (usually made up of hundreds of small farmers) are complying with rules.

"It's a massive boost towards implementing our standards in Asian countries," said Daniel Lee, the best aquaculture practice standards coordinator for the GAA.

"It's ironic that supermarkets often get blamed for stoking the demand for these seafood products," he said, adding: "They've led the charge to improve standards."

But there is still a wide gap between agreed upon standards and what happens in practice.

Shrimp farming is largely a small holder activity -- there are thousands of small farmers in Thailand who produce shrimp for export to North America and the European Union. The Thai department of fisheries has undertaken a major campaign to educate farmers on best practices, reducing yield losses trumps concerns over sustainability, but other Asian governments have not taken the problem as seriously.

Antibiotics, which are often used in agriculture and aquaculture as preventative to keep stocks from falling ill, remain a tempting option.

"In general, it would be fair to say it [antibiotic use]has fallen dramatically in shrimp farms around the world," said Peter Bridson, manager of the Seafood Watch Program a the Center for the Future of Oceans at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California.

"That doesn't mean to say it's good now," said Mr. Bridson, who also sits on the Shrimp Aquaculture Dialogue steering committee. "It's just that it was horrific before."

Reporting for this story was contributed by the University of British Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism, International Reporting course

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