By Jason Gale, Lydia Mulvany, and Monte Reel, Bloomberg Businessweek
From the air, the Pearl River Delta in southern China’s Guangdong province resembles a mass of human cells under a microscope. Hundreds of thousands of tiny rectangular blocks, all of them shades of green, are clustered between cities and waterways. Livestock pens are scattered among the thousands of seafood farms that form the heart of the country’s aquaculture industry, the largest in the world.
“People eating their shrimp cocktails and paella may be getting more than they bargained for,” says Dr. Martin Blaser, a professor of microbiology and an infectious diseases physician at New York University Langone Medical Center who chairs President Barack Obama’s advisory panel for combating antibiotic-resistant bacteria. “The penetration of antibiotics through the food chain is a big problem.”
Research has found that as much as 90 percent of the antibiotics administered to pigs pass undegraded through their urine and feces. This has a direct impact on farmed seafood. The waste from the pigpens at the Jiangmen farm flowing into the ponds, for example, exposes the fish to almost the same doses of medicine the livestock get—and that’s in addition to the antibiotics added to the water to prevent and treat aquatic disease outbreaks. The fish pond drains into a canal connected to the West River, which eventually empties into the Pearl River estuary, on which sit Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Hong Kong, and Macau. The estuary receives 193 metric tons (213 tons) of antibiotics a year, Chinese scientists estimated in 2013.
The $90 billion aquaculture trade accounts for almost half of all seafood harvested or caught, according to the United Nations. China supplies almost 60 percent of the global total and is the biggest exporter. U.S. food regulators have known about the country’s antibiotic problem for more than a decade. The Food and Drug Administration intensified its monitoring of imported farm-raised seafood from China in the fall of 2006 and found a quarter of the samples tested contained residues of unapproved drugs and unsafe food additives. The following June an import alert was applied to all farm-raised shrimp and several other kinds of seafood from China, allowing the agency to detain the products at port until each shipment is proved, through laboratory analysis, to be untainted.
But antibiotic-contaminated seafood keeps turning up at U.S. ports, as well as in restaurants and grocery stores. That’s because the distribution networks that move the seafood around the world are often as murky as the waters in which the fish are raised. Federal agencies trying to protect public health face multiple adversaries: microbes rapidly evolving to defeat antibiotics and shadowy seafood companies that quickly adapt to health regulations to circumvent them, moving dirty seafood around the world in much the same way criminal organizations launder dirty money.
The groups lobbying hardest for intensified scrutiny of imported shrimp and fish are, unsurprisingly, the American producers of seafood. The Southern Shrimp Alliance, a trade organization of U.S. shrimp producers, says the U.S. market is awash in fraudulently labeled and unsafe seafood. “What we have learned is that there are well-developed channels for getting massive amounts of food and other consumer goods into this market while evading U.S. laws,” says John Williams, the organization’s executive director.
Critics of increased inspection say it would cause gridlock at U.S. ports. “Think of all the trucks going by on an interstate, and you have a cop pulling people over for speeding,” says Peter Quinter, a customs and international trade lawyer in Miami. “You can’t pull everyone over. … Hiring more FDA officers is not the answer; it’s like shutting down the highway.”
The FDA alert has virtually halted Malaysian shrimp imports. But that doesn’t mean tainted Chinese shrimp aren’t making it into the U.S. Industry and trade experts say many companies transship Chinese shrimp by following the American Fisheries model, each of them creating disposable import companies that can simply fold, or reincorporate under another name, at the first sign of regulatory scrutiny. Over the years, when Malaysian shrimp exporters were added to the FDA’s “red list”—meaning their shipments would have to be stopped at U.S. ports—the companies didn’t try to clear their names, as companies from other countries did, says Nathan Rickard, an attorney specializing in international trade whose clients include the Southern Shrimp Alliance. They just incorporated new entities with new names to do the same work.
It appears now that dirty shrimp is being routed through different countries. One that might be taking Malaysia’s place as an international transshipping hub is Ecuador, domestic shrimp producers say.
“The import alert was a huge step forward to prevent contaminated shrimp from getting to U.S. consumers, but we have also seen significant shifts in trade patterns indicating new routes and methods for getting bad shrimp into the U.S. market,” says Williams, of the Southern Shrimp Alliance. “As long as there are distributors, retailers, and restaurants that, provided that the price is low, do not know and do not care where their shrimp is coming from, we expect to see shrimp-trade fraud.”