Shrimp advice more proof Consumer Reports should avoid seafood


Sean Murphy, SeafoodSource online editor

Published on
April 28, 2015

Once again, the magazine that’s really good at deciding which flat-screen TV or tube of toothpaste is the best value for the money is trying to tell American consumers what they should not be eating, and once again they haven’t done the best job.

The latest article from Consumer Reports magazine about food safety is taking aim at shrimp this time, and while it’s not as rife with problems as the magazine’s piece that ran in August of last year on canned tuna, most of the revelations it contains have been reported before. Worse, its ultimate consumer call to action – basically avoid farmed shrimp whenever you can – is simply not realistic, as anyone who reads the article can see from its own numbers.

The article doesn’t have a byline, but extensively quotes Urvashi Rangan, executive director of the Consumer Reports Food Safety and Sustainability Center. The magazine’s study involved buying a total of 342 packages of frozen shrimp – 284 of them raw, 58 cooked. “We didn’t include fresh, never-frozen shrimp because they account for only a small percentage of the shrimp that consumers buy.”

What they found suggests that any of the shrimp in the average American shrimp cocktail, shrimp scampi or fishermen’s platter could contain anything from deadly bacteria to excessive amounts of antibiotics. A closer look at the numbers, however, reveals there’s not much to worry about.

Rangan’s study showed 16 percent of the cooked shrimp samples “contained Vibrio and E. coli.” That certainly sounds scary, until one considers there are a few ways one can find such bacteria; most commonly, it’s either grown or discovered with a blanket DNA test that can find fragments of the bacteria, according to Stephen Newman, a marine microbiologist and frequent blogger on SeafoodSource who has worked in aquaculture for three decades.

If the magazine used the latter method, Newman said, all that means is they found pieces of dead bacteria, which won’t harm anyone. Live E. coli bacteria, he acknowledged, would be more worrying, but the magazine doesn’t say specifically what it found.

The study also found seven raw shrimp samples contained antibiotic-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, which is a nasty but more common bug than one might think. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it’s on the skin (and even inside the noses) of 25 percent of healthy people, meaning one out of every four people is carrying it right now.

In all, the article noted 60 percent of raw shrimp tested positive for bacteria, but there’s no real breakdown, and that matters – Newman said the term “bacteria” refers to countless microbes, many of which are harmless to people.

“I”d be shocked if there was none (found),” he said.

The magazine’s own report seemed to acknowledge this, noting a similar study on chicken found 97 percent of raw chicken tested positive for bacteria, and “most bacteria on shrimp would be killed during the cooking process.”

In other words, you should cook chicken or shrimp before you eat it. I’m glad Consumer Reports is here to tell us this.

The article goes on to criticize foreign shrimp producers in particular for not having regulations similar to the United States regarding pesticides and antibiotics. The study found a small percentage (11 samples in all) contained antibiotics, but the idea that antibiotics are being abused in aquaculture is not a new idea. Newman noted that antibiotics have been overused outside of aquaculture, even in medical facilities worldwide.

“They’re abused everywhere,” he said.

The magazine engaged in some public shaming, naming seven major American retailers I won’t mention here since the magazine goes on to stress they are not accusing the retailers of violating the rules – which makes the magazine’s naming them even more baffling. Rather, the magazine is calling for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which is responsible for inspecting seafood, to do more. This study alone doesn’t support that advice, not without a more thorough breakdown of what they found.

As to what consumers should do, the magazine doesn’t warn Americans off farmed shrimp altogether, recommending certification labels from several organizations including the Aquaculture Stewardship Council, but on average the article urges consumers not to trust labels. “Still, when it comes to safety and sustainability, responsibly caught U.S. wild shrimp is our top choice.”

That’s a tough sell to budget-conscious consumers, considering the article acknowledges farmed shrimp is significantly cheaper. The article also notes “Americans eat about three times more shrimp than we did 35 years ago. To satisfy our insatiable appetite, the U.S. has become a massive importer: About 94 percent of our shrimp supply comes from abroad.” It sounds like the best way to get Americans to avoid farmed shrimp is to suggest they stop eating shrimp altogether.

Good luck with that, Consumer Reports. Maybe you should stick to reviewing smartphones.

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