GOAL: "Antibiotic-free" certification for seafood likely to crop up soon

Published on
October 24, 2019

The use of antibiotics in aquaculture will likely become an increasingly important issue, according to a panel of experts at the 2019 GOAL Conference in Chennai, India.

The panel discussion followed a sobering presentation by Ramanan Laxminarayan – the founder and director at the Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics, and Policy – that detailed the growing risk that antibiotic-resistant bacteria is posing to health. By 2050, if effective methods of controlling antibiotic resistant bacteria are not found, roughly 10 million people could die annually.

As the public’s knowledge about antibiotic resistance grows, the aquaculture industry faces potential pushback over its own use of antibiotics. Relatively few government standards exist for antibiotic use in aquaculture, and some certification schemes don’t touch upon their use.

Indian shrimp aquaculture, according to All India Shrimp Hatcheries Association President Ramraj Dahmodar is ahead of the curve on antibiotic use. Currently, the Indian shrimp industry doesn’t utilize a lot of antibiotics, he said. He credits the Indian government’s proactive stance, through its regulatory agencies, for the industry’s lack of use.

“The government of India has banned the use of antibiotics in shrimp farming,” Dahmodar said. A large part of the lack of need for antibiotics is the relatively low impact bacteria have on shrimp aquaculture. Most pathogens, Dahmodar added, are viral, and the one bacterial pathogen that the shrimp industry has to deal with is relatively unaffected by antibiotic use.

Other aquaculture industries, however, still face the difficult decision of whether or not to use antibiotics, and at which level. Ruth Hoban, sustainability manager at Great Britain-based New England Seafood, a company farming sea bass and sea bream, said that her industry is relatively new and standards are still evolving.

Hoban said that currently, there’s no established standard on antibiotic use in her sector.

“There are no legal requirements other than how long you have to wait until you harvest the fish,” she said. “We’re really just scoping what is best practice and what that looks like.”

Despite the lack of legal requirements, U.K. retailers in particular are driving change in the industry, according to Hoban. However, antibiotic use is not a factor in their buying decisions – yet.

“They recommended using responsibly, but there’s no real … limit set,” Hoban said.

Will Rash, managing director at Big Prawn, said that the industry needs to balance antibiotic use with productivity.

“One comes to the balance of the effect that no use of antibiotics might have on animal welfare, and that consideration also needs to be brought to the table,” he said.

However, he said that in all likelihood, a labeling standard for no antibiotic use is likely to crop up in the next few years.

“I probably do concur that labeling with zero antibiotics or some form of labeling that makes reference to antibiotics is probably going to happen,” Rash said.

For Rash, antibiotic use – particularly in Asia – is more than a matter of whether or not aquaculture companies manage use, and whether or not efforts are taken to reduce use. A change of culture is also required, as the ease of access to antibiotics by the general public is high in Asia, and their usage is also high.

As an exercise, he said, he went around to different pharmacies in Chennai and tried to purchase antibiotics. In the end, every store quickly sold them to him despite the labeling “not to be sold without a prescription.”

“Yes, we have an issue in farming, or animal farming or aquaculture, but I think there is an issue in the mindset of countries we source our food in in Asia and other places in the world, where it is common practice to assume I need antibiotics to help me prevent illness in myself, with very limited control,” Rash said. “How are we going to change the mindset for farmers to understand that problem, when it is acceptable for them to do that to their children, and their grandchildren.”

Laxminarayan compared the current situation with how smoking was perceived in the past.

“If this meeting was 30 years ago, half the room would be smoking and the other half would not say anything about it. This has not yet happened for antibiotics,” Laxminarayan said.

In order to reduce the use of antibiotics, both in aquaculture and in other industries, a cultural change is needed, he said.

“Unless we as a society respect antibiotics, just pointing at one shrimp farmer and saying, ‘You better respect antibiotics’ is difficult,” Laxminarayan said.

Photo courtesy of Chris Chase/SeafoodSource

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