Be it cocktail, scampi, or alfredo, that shrimp you just ate was very possibly an impostor.
The environmental group Oceana DNA tested shrimp at 111 restaurants and grocery stories across the United States and found 30% were mislabeled, most often by pretending that whiteleg shrimp, which is often farmed under terrible conditions in southeast Asia, was “wild” or “Gulf” shrimp.
Some 43% of the shrimp bought in New York groceries and restaurants was of a different origin than advertised, compared with 33% in Washington, DC, 30% in the Gulf of Mexico region, and a mere 5% in Portland, Oregon—an apparent bastion of shrimp-sourcing honesty.
The discovery of widespread shrimp shenanigans is the latest episode of American seafood fraud to be exposed:
- Nearly six-tenths of America’s tuna isn’t really tuna (in some cases, it’s a fish that causes oily anal leakage).
- Chilean seabass has been found to contain way more mercury than it’s supposed to.
- Salmon and shrimp, both farmed and wild, contained levels of antibiotics sufficient to promote antibiotic resistance.
So what exactly is sneaking into American shrimp baskets? Banded coral shrimp, for one—an aquarium pet not intended for human consumption. Also, several species that haven’t yet been identified by science. Mostly, though, it was whiteleg shrimp—the Oscar Mayer cold-cut of the species.
The report’s findings, which are based on nearly 150 products from more than 100 vendors, add to compelling evidence of a critical flaw in America’s seafood industry: current labeling laws are so lax that no one really knows what they’re eating.
“Things are mislabeled at the import level, the wholesale level, the retail level,” Kimberly Warner, Oceana’s senior scientist, told Quartz. “Without more transparency, it’s really hard to nail down where the stuff you end up buying came from—and where that species substitution occurred.”
There are lots of good reasons to want to know where and how your shrimp was caught. Irresponsibly farmed shrimp can contain chemicals or veterinary drugs that humans shouldn’t eat, as well as antibiotics.
Ethical concerns also loom large. For example, Thailand’s shrimp-fishing industry enslaves workers from poor neighboring countries. Both wild and farmed shrimp is often harvested in environmentally destructive ways, and though that shrimp is sometimes deemed illegal for those reasons, supply chain opacity allows it to enter the US market. That makes it harder for ethical shrimpers to stay in business.
Rules to increase transparency are now wending their way through the US government. But though firmer laws would certainly help, the limited incidence of shrimp shams in Portland suggest that consumer pressure can also be a powerful tool.
What kind of shrimp does Oceana’s Warner opt for, assuming that she can trust the label?
“I eat it more as a treat than as an everyday thing,” she said. “Especially after I’ve eaten my way through all those test samples.”