Shrimp, slavery and sustainability

Shrimp_rawFried, popcorn, scampi-ed, grilled, Alfredo, skewered, cocktail, all-you-can-eat. We love shrimp!

According to recent statistics, shrimp is the most-consumed seafood in the US.  Per-person consumption has doubled in the last 20+ years.  One reason cited for the exploding demand is shrimp’s health halo: it’s a low calorie and low fat source of protein that tastes good.  Plus it’s convenient; you can buy it pre-cooked so you don’t even have to deal with messy shells.  What could be wrong with that?  Well, aside from the fact that most of our shrimp recipes involve high calorie breading, frying and creamy sauces, nothing.

Where does all this shrimp come from?  Increasingly from fish farms, mostly in Asia, the source of 94% of shrimp consumed in the US.  If you’re not concerned about the calories in breaded or fried shrimp, you might be put off by certain aspects of shrimp farming.  I’m definitely concerned about two major issues:

  1. Safety.  According to a recent Consumer Reports study, samples of frozen raw and cooked shrimp from major grocery stores were contaminated with bacteria and drug residues.  Detected bacteria included Salmonella, Vibrio, Listeria and E.Coli, as well as MRSA.  Drug residues included several antibiotics, which are fed to farmed shrimp in an attempt to counteract effects of crowded and polluted fish farm conditions.  Theoretically, cooking raw shrimp would kill the bacteria, but if you consume ready-to-eat pre-cooked shrimp without heating it, you could be getting an unwelcome addition to your dinner.  And cooking does not eliminate antibiotic residues.
  2. Slavery. In the last couple of years, the connection between human trafficking and slave labor in parts of the S.E. Asian shrimp processing industry has made news.  The US State Department expressed concerns about this problem.  Desperate migrants, including children, are subject to violence, torture and killing, and forced to live in terrible conditions.  OK, that did it for me.

What do you do if you’re concerned about human rights and the environment, as well as your own health?  Give up shrimp?  Not necessarily.  There are two easy ways to identify what’s worth buying:

  • Shrimp_labelLook for certification labels.  The Marine Stewardship Council certifies fishing practices for wild-caught shrimp.  The Aquaculture Stewardship Council and Global Aquaculture Alliance grant certification to producers who follow a strict set of rules on harvesting and production.
  • Shop “local”.  In the US, the term “local” used for shrimp is a bit of a stretch unless you live on the coast.  But shrimp from a variety of coastal areas are sold nation-wide.  That’s about as local as you’re going to get.  The trade off?  Shrimp that’s caught or farmed using environmentally responsible practices is likely to cost more.  But it also might taste better.  Shrimp should have a wonderful rich flavor, something I noticed was missing from cheap farmed shrimp.

I’m going to be much more vigilant about sustainability certification when buying shrimp from now on.

Nutrition Facts for 3 oz plain cooked shrimp:

  • 84 calories
  • 20 grams protein (wow!)
  • no fat
  • no carbs

Turn that into 3 oz of breaded fried shrimp and you’ve got:

  • 260 calories
  • 6.7 grams protein
  • 16 grams of fat
  • 24 grams carbs

I referred to an article in the April/May 2016 issue of Fine Cooking Magazine — Shopping for Shrimp on page 56 — for information on certification labels.  There’s a summary of the environmental and human trafficking problems with farmed shrimp, as well as ways to identify responsibly-produced shrimp and of course some recipes.  Subscription is required.

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