The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The shrimp you’re buying isn’t always what it claims to be

Something smells fishy. (Robert F. Bukaty/AP Photo)
Placeholder while article actions load

America's favorite seafood is often something other than what it's advertised to be.

Of the nearly 150 shrimp products tested by environmental group Oceana at more than 100 vendors in the United States, some 30 percent were found to have been mislabeled, misleadingly labeled, or what the study calls a "mystery," because two shrimp from the same bag were of different species.

"With shrimp, it is almost impossible to know what you are getting," write the researchers, who tested the DNA of shrimp sold at restaurants, grocery stores and food markets across the country.

Specifically, 15 percent of the shrimp Oceana tested was wrongly labeled, 10 percent carried a label that was misleading, and 5 percent seems to have found its way into the wrong bag.

The most common mistake observed was one in which whiteleg shrimp, which is usually farmed in Southeast Asia and often done so under reprehensible circumstances, was called “wild” caught shrimp, which carries the opposite connotation. But the labels frequently misrepresented shrimp origins, species, and method of production.

In all, the study identified 20 different species of shrimp. Whiteleg shrimp, which accounts for roughly half of all shrimp sold in the world, was the most common, followed by white shrimp and brown shrimp, which are often caught "wild" from the Gulf of Mexico. But among the rest were a few troubling outliers, including eight shrimp species that aren't included in the FDA's list of approved seafood, three which were unrecognizable, and one, the banded coral shrimp, which is more commonly found in aquariums, as a pet.

Oceana is careful to warn that its study isn't necessarily a nationally representative sample—the survey spanned only 70 restaurants and 41 grocery stores across 12 cities in the United States—but the group's findings are still indicative of what could be an alarming trend.

Shrimp consumption has soared over the past few decades, outpacing canned tuna as the country's most eaten seafood. As of 2012, Americans ate nearly 4 pounds of shrimp per year per person, which is nearly as much as the next two, canned tuna and salmon, combined.

But as demand has climbed upwards, so too has the country's appetite for imported shrimp. Nearly 90 percent of shrimp eaten in the United States (89 percent as of 2012, to be exact) now comes from overseas, partly to accommodate the country's appetite but largely because imported shrimp is cheaper.

The problem with imported shrimp, however, is that it's often difficult to track its originsspecifically, how it was caught, harvested, or most likely, farmed. While the United States requires that shrimp products carry a country-of-origin label, that label only shows the most recent country in which the shrimp was processed. For consumers looking to avoid shrimp farmed in, say, Thailand, where shrimp production has been tied to slave labor, that's a disconcerting lack of information. And poorly farmed fish can contain chemicals unfit for human consumption, as well as significant amounts of antibiotics. Even imported "wild" seafood often comes from illegal pirate fishing.

Imported seafood also isn't as well-regulated as one might expect. The FDA, which is responsible for the safety of seafood imports, inspects a surprisingly insignificant portion of them—somewhere between 1 and 2 percent, according to the Food & Environment Reporting Network. U.S. Customs Service and NOAA Fisheries, which also help with overseeing seafood imports, inspect as much as 40 percent. Still, that means more than half of imported seafood goes unchecked.

Oceana, for its part, proposes a commitment to transparency and customer information. "Without traceability and more informative labels, sustainability guidelines are difficult, if not impossible, to follow, robbing consumers of the ability to make confident choices to protect their health, the oceans, or to use their consumer power to stop human rights abuses," the study says.

The good news is that the U.S. government appears to be on the same page. In June, Secretary of State John Kerry shared the Obama administration's plans to make sure Americans "know exactly who caught it, where, and when."