Shrimp may be America's favorite seafood, but consumers may not always get what they ask for. According to DNA analyses conducted by the environmental advocacy group Oceana, 35 percent of shrimp sold in U.S. grocery stores and restaurants was improperly labeled by species or type, raising questions about food safety and complicating efforts to promote sustainability.
Oceana's study of shrimp mislabeling, released Thursday, is part of a broader effort to uncover and address fraud in the American seafood marketplace. In February 2013, Oceana released a study of mislabeling in finfish, which found that one-third of the fish sold at retail outlets was not what the label said it was.
In June 2014, the Obama administration announced it would propose new rules for the seafood industry by the end of the year. And just last Friday, the Food and Drug Administration, which is responsible for oversight of fish, issued a report based on DNA analysis of 700 samples collected from wholesalers and importers in 14 states. The FDA found that an average of 15 percent of fish was mislabeled, especially higher-priced species like snapper and grouper.
Taken together, these efforts represent the most comprehensive action to date to address the problem of seafood fraud.
In its report on shrimp, Oceana found misrepresentation almost everywhere it looked: farmed shrimp passed off as wild or "Gulf caught," one species swapped for another, unidentified mixing of species. The problem was worst in New York City, where 43 percent of shrimp samples were improperly labeled, and almost as bad in Washington, D.C., and the Gulf Coast, with mislabeling in 30 percent of the samples. Portland, Oregon, had the best result, with a mislabeling rate of only 5 percent.
The Oceana team tested shrimp from 111 vendors (70 restaurants and 41 grocery stores) in the second half of 2013, and found that 35 percent had at least some mislabeled products—31 percent of the restaurants and 41 percent of the grocery stores. When calculated by overall volume, the mislabeling rate was 30 percent.
Oddly, the group also found some unknown shrimp species, or at least species that weren't usually considered fit for human consumption. Of the 20 species the Oceana team identified, eight were not previously known to be on the market for consumption. These included coral "cleaner" shrimp that pick parasites off reefs and are popular in the aquarium trade.
Kimberly Warner, a senior scientist with Oceana and author of the new study, says she isn't aware of any adverse health effects from eating these nonfood species, but that may be because no one has studied them. (Learn about other kinds of food fraud.)
Is That Shrimp Really Wild?
Most mislabeling relates to whether the shrimp was caught in the wild, a problem that cuts both ways—either saying shrimp is wild-caught when it's not, or failing to say it's wild-caught when it is. According to Warner, one of the most common instances of mislabeling was for farmed whiteleg shrimp to be passed off as wild-caught, especially as wild-caught from the Gulf.
Also common, though to an extent that was harder to quantify, was Gulf shrimp that was sold simply as "shrimp," with no information on the source. She considered that to be a lost marketing opportunity, denying producers the chance to get the price premium that many consumers are willing to pay for wild-caught shrimp.
John Williams, the executive director of the Southern Shrimp Alliance, agrees that his producers sometimes miss out on fetching a higher price."Those who live around the Gulf Coast can look at or taste the product and know where it comes from, but people in other parts of the country aren't as aware," he says.
But it's not just about the taste or the pricing; it's also about sustainability. Farmed and wild shrimp are not equal when it comes to environmental impact, says the Monterey Bay Aquarium. (Also learn about illegal fishing.)
The aquarium's Seafood Watch program considers U.S.-caught wild shrimp to be a "Best Choice" or "Good Alternative" from an environmental point of view, thanks to rigorous fisheries laws that reduce unintended bycatch of turtles, marine mammals, and other threatened organisms.
The situation is different for farmed shrimp, however. Most foreign farmed shrimp is on Monterey Bay Aquarium's "Avoid" list because of concerns about habitat destruction, overfishing of other organisms to serve as feed, waste pollution, spread of diseases, and overuse of chemical treatments. Some shrimp farmers in Thailand have even been linked to human trafficking.
The farmed shrimp supply chain is complex, consisting of approximately 400,000 producers worldwide, numerous processing plants, and multiple distributors, the aquarium notes on its website. "This makes it difficult for consumers to know the origin of their shrimp and how it was farmed."
Keeping Up With Demand
According to Gavin Gibbons, a spokesperson for the National Fisheries Institute—the leading trade group for the U.S. seafood industry—many shrimp buyers don't view wild and farmed shrimp as interchangeable. They may buy some wild shrimp for higher-end uses and farmed shrimp for other uses, and often place specific orders far in advance, depending on market prices.
Overall, Americans eat 3.8 pounds of shrimp per capita, more than any other seafood item. Shrimp is now the most highly traded seafood product by value in the U.S. and around the world.
To meet this growing appetite, the shrimp aquaculture industry has grown dramatically since the 1980s. Farmed shrimp usually can be produced for a lower price and generally comes from Southeast Asia and India.
By 2012, 89 percent of the shrimp consumed in the U.S. was imported. Most of the domestically produced shrimp is caught in 19 states, with 70 percent coming from the Gulf of Mexico. About 21 percent comes from the Pacific Northwest in the form of smaller coldwater shrimp, often called "ocean shrimp."
According to Oceana's Warner, a problem with foreign shrimp is that Asian shrimp farms might be using toxic chemicals that are banned in the U.S. And consumers can't always rely on the mandatory country-of-origin label system, she says, because the rules state that only the last country where seafood was processed must be listed.
Such rules can lead, for instance, to a bag of shrimp that is native to North America being marked "Product of India." "Was the shrimp processed in India or somehow mixed up?" she asks. "We don't know."
The mislabeling that Oceana uncovered can interfere with people's ability to choose their shrimp according to whatever matters to them, whether it be taste, price, or environmental concerns. "If everything is simply called 'shrimp,'" says Warner, "consumers are left in the dark."
Solutions in the Works
The Obama administration is hoping to cast light on this issue. In June, Secretary of State John Kerry announced plans to institute measures to "ensure all seafood sold in the U.S. is both sustainable and traceable, meaning all customers will know exactly who caught it, where, and when."
Details of this plan have yet to emerge, but the administration is expected to announce specific recommendations in December.
But Gibbons of the National Fisheries Institute says more regulations are not what's needed.
"Putting up another stop sign where there already is a stop sign doesn't make people more likely to stop," he says. "You need to put a cop at the intersection."
That means, in part, more testing and more inspecting by the FDA, says Williams of the Southern Shrimp Alliance. "The agencies are doing a heck of a job," he says. "But they need more resources, more manpower, and more dollars if you want to see better enforcement."
Gibbons adds that, over the past year, the FDA has been stepping up testing and outreach over seafood labeling. In addition to issuing letters to offenders, the agency has the power to block imports and seize product, he says.
"We are all for enforcement, but what we are looking to avoid is redundancy or legislative action just for the sake of legislative action," says Gibbons. The FDA has not responded to National Geographic's request for comment.
Meanwhile, the industry has been doing some self-regulating. Warner points to a few examples: rigorous traceability requirements for the entire supply chain at some retailers, including Whole Foods and Wegmans; a commitment from Target to do the same starting in 2015; and efforts to bar-code fish shipments at Darden (Red Lobster) and Yum Brands (Long John Silver's).
Shrimpers have also had some success with voluntary tracking systems, such as the app-based system pioneered by Boston-based Red's Best.
Until regulations are tightened, Warner says consumers can learn much of what they need to know about their shrimp by starting with two simple questions: Was it farm-raised or wild-caught? And where did it come from?
"Consumers have a right to know more about their favorite seafood so we can make more informed decisions," she says.