NGO advice makes sense, except for the shrimp boycott
Recently, a series of recommendations for seafood consumers from environmental activist firm Food and Water Watch caught my eye, published online both by Huffington Post and Prevention magazine, two major reputable mainstream media publications here in the United States.
Food and Water Watch is up-front about its campaign to drive awareness of the pitfalls of industrial-scale food production, and has some genuinely legitimate concerns that go way beyond the seafood industry, but some of this most recent offering of advice may do the industry more harm than good.
Many of the group’s recommendations and assertions in the piece about popular (and some not-so-popular) seafood choices make a lot of sense – the group cites a number of Atlantic finfish as having stocks way too low to safely fish commercially, such as salmon, bluefin tuna and cod. The group also notes Patagonian toothfish (the piece refers to it by its common name, Chilean sea bass) and certain shark species are too rare and endangered to eat. Most industry leaders and experts would agree that these species are all in trouble, and have been for some time, with only limited fishing allowed if any fishing is allowed at all and, unfortunately for the fisheries that once made a living off of these species, the science says that’s probably the way it should be for now.
There were a few recommendations the industry won’t agree with – the group urged people not to buy farmed salmon, which we have discussed in great detail on SeafoodSource – but one of the more notable urgings from Food and Water Watch concerned imported shrimp, and its advice to consumers to stop buying it.
The piece recalled stories in the past that have asserted everything from chemical residue to rodent hair to pieces of insects have made their way into shrimp that in turn comes to the United States. As Food and Water Watch points out, this is a serious concern since shrimp is the No. 1 consumed seafood here and more than 90 percent of the seafood Americans eat is imported.
That said, many of those concerns are based on older stories. There haven’t been any reports of such filth winding up in imported shrimp in some time, and Food and Water Watch doesn’t offer any evidence that those problems still exist, but the group asserts we’d never know, since American regulators don’t do enough to inspect imported seafood.
“We’re concerned that the inspection rate is just so low,” Patricia Lovera, assistant director of Food and Water Watch, told me when I asked her about the online advice.
This is one assertion in the nonprofit watchdog group’s piece that really doesn’t hold up. The raw numbers confirm that far less than five percent – one industry group admitted to me it’s more like two percent – of imported seafood is inspected at the dock, but Food and Water Watch is suggesting that no one is watching at all, which isn’t really true.
Asking the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to inspect every piece of fish, every shrimp, every crab as it arrives at the dock is not only expensive – it would take an army of inspectors – it is time-consuming, and when it comes to food products that matters, even with frozen product.
Moreover, the FDA is wise enough to see that other methods are necessary, hence the Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points (HACCP) regulation, which sets standards for many products, including seafood. In exchange for having the right to export food to this country, foreign exporting nations have to not only abide by the standards set by HACCP, they have to prove without a doubt to American regulators that they are.
“Both domestic and imported seafood products are required to meet the same food safety standards, FDA Spokesman Siobhan DeLancey told me. “If FDA had information that an aquaculture product was raised in a manner that would violate FDA’s food safety requirements, that product would not be allowed entry into the United States.”
Lovera’s response to that is a fair point – it puts the onus on someone else to police what Americans will be eating – but it’s still another step in the process. Even Lovera acknowledged there was no way the FDA will ever be able to personally inspect every ounce of imported seafood – “We’re not saying we’re ever going to get to 100 percent,” she told me. It makes sense to have regulations that cover the seafood at its source, not just its destination.
Even if Food and Water Watch can make the argument that a small increase in the number of inspectors would help, that’s a discussion that needs to happen in Washington, not in America’s shopping carts. I’ve never been a fan of blanket “don’t buy this” advice, especially for something as popular as shrimp. It punishes all the players in the industry, not just the bad ones. Blunt-instrument recommendations like this carry far too much of a risk that consumers will throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater.