Shrimp farming misperceptions lie with industry
Last week’s assault on farmed shrimp is yet another example of a prominent U.S. news outlet botching a report by exaggerating risk, in this instance the health risk associated with consuming food containing residues of a prohibited animal drug.
But there’s much, much more to the story than shoddy, oversimplified reporting, crammed into a three-minute segment that 376,000 Americans watched.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s zero-tolerance policy for banned antibiotics — such as the three cited on last Friday’s broadcast of “ABC World News with Diane Sawyer” — can, at times, cause more harm than good. But let’s not put 100 percent of the blame on the FDA.
Here’s the predicament: Americans eat about 4 pounds of shrimp a year — representing roughly one-quarter of the country’s seafood consumption. About 90 percent of the U.S. shrimp supply is imported, much of it farmed in Asia. ABC World News tests shrimp and finds residues of three prohibited antibiotics — nitrofuranzone, enrofloxacin and chloramphenicol — in three of 30 samples. (It did not reveal the amount of residues detected.) ABC’s Jim Avila goes on to report that shrimp are raised “in shocking conditions that promote disease and expose them to chemicals,” frightening consumers, some of whom may avoid eating shrimp, imported and domestic, altogether.
This mob mentality could have been avoided if ABC World News put the health risk in perspective and if the FDA did not have a zero-tolerance for unapproved animal drugs. If the agency has not approved its use and established a tolerance for it, a food cannot contain any amount of an animal drug, no matter how miniscule. At the same time, technology is improving, and smaller and smaller amounts of a substance — measured in parts per billion or parts per trillion — can be detected. So the FDA ends up removing food from the marketplace due to residues of a substance that do not pose a safety risk.
“Modern toxicology rests on a foundational concept — the dose-response principle,” said Rick Quinn, partner at regulatory consulting firm Benjamin L. England & Associates and principal of FDAImports.com, which blogged about the issue on Friday. “In other words, a substance is only harmful when presented in a high enough amount. Thus, it is never enough to say a product contains a possibly harmful substance when talking about risks. One always has to also consider the amounts necessary to make that risk a possibility.”
But the FDA is in a tough situation, explained Quinn. “From an enforcement discretion standpoint, establishing safety levels can create a regulatory headache for the FDA. This is not so easy, because the FDA is not sitting around creating tolerances for any drug imaginable. Rather, it establishes a tolerance in the context of the animal drug approval process,” he said.
“Again, from an enforcement discretion standpoint, tolerance can create a PR nightmare for FDA,” continued Quinn. “News sources, perhaps like ABC World News, may not appropriately apply the dose-response principle and accuse the agency of allowing illegal animal drugs into food, which can be harmful. Even if the tolerance level is safe, that’s not what people are hearing in the news.”
Is this a no-win situation for the FDA? Perhaps. But this all goes away if the industry phases out the use of banned antibiotics and other animal drugs in shrimp farming, and that’s exactly the direction it’s heading in, according to the Global Aquaculture Alliance (GAA). After the ABC World News report aired, the GAA countered that the use of antibiotics “is neither a common nor accepted practice in shrimp farming” and that the industry is working to eliminate antibiotic use altogether. Plus, a growing quantity of farmed shrimp can be sourced from certified farms and processing plants that provide food-safety assurances. ABC World News did not report any of this.
So don’t hold your breath waiting for the mainstream media ease up on the sensationalism or the FDA to drop its zero-tolerance policy for banned animal drugs. Ultimately, the solution lies with the industry.