I Say Shrimp, You Say Prawn…We’ll Both Say I’ll Never Eat Another Again After Reading This

I love shrimp – known as prawns to a lot of the non-Americans out there. But those cute little buggers perched on the edge of your glass filled with cocktail sauce hold dark secrets that maybe you don’t want to know.

Avert your eyes if you don’t want to know – for those of us who can bear being sadder and wiser, take a read of this article from The Guardian – a newspaper out of the UK – here’s a quote:

The price of providing an everyday luxury for consumers in industrialised countries has been a catalogue of damaging consequences in developing nations. Serious environmental degradation, disease, pollution, debt and dispossession, illegal land seizures, abuse of child labour and violence have afflicted the dozen or so countries entering the market. Western diners, meanwhile, are eating a food dependent on the heavy use of antibiotics and growth hormones.

Don’t you want to rush out and buy a bag? Wait, it gets worse – here’s another quote from the article, describing a Vietnamese shrimp farmer in a sort of ‘day-in-the-life’ manner:

“…he is using a boom to try to scoop out algae – a sign of pollution and disease – when we arrive. His shrimp are ill. He pulls a few out to show us – they are curled up and deformed and telltale black marks are visible along the shell. He will apply more antibiotics with the feed tomorrow, he says. He had cleared the pond with chemicals, he is not sure what, before he filled it for this crop, but it wasn’t strong enough, he thinks. “

I usually have a big plate of shrimp when I go to the Lucky Happy Budget Chinese Buffet near my home – is this why I feel sick afterward? 

It’s not only my personal internal environment that’s violated here:

Most prawn farms are built in coastal areas where mangrove forests thrive. Mangroves are among the most productive ecosystems on the planet, and support a great variety of marine life. The world’s coral reefs and seagrass beds – upon which two thirds of all fish caught depend – need the mangroves. But mangroves across the globe are being cleared to make way for intensive prawn farms. Nearly 40% of world mangrove loss has been attributed to shrimp farming, according to EJF.

Now, if you could care less about environmental destruction in South-East Asia, that’s OK by me – but these shrimp you might be eating – what might these ‘chemicals’ the farmers use be, exactly?

Early last year, the European Commission banned all prawns from China because of fears over the use of cancer-causing chloramphenicol and nitrofuran antibiotics. When the UK food standards agency began testing other warm-water prawns it found problems with samples from Thailand, Vietnam, Pakistan and Indonesia.

Chloramphenicol? Never heard of it. The Merck Manual says it is an antibiotic, but warns:

Because of bone marrow toxicity, the availability of alternative antibiotics, and the emergence of resistance, chloramphenicol is no longer a drug of choice for any infection

I found nothing about it being a cancer-causing agent – it only causes bone marrow toxicity…no big deal.

I did find that the nitrofuran was banned a while back by the FDA, which said:

use of topical nitrofuran drugs in food-producing animals may result in the presence of residues that are carcinogenic and have not been shown to be safe

Now…it’s reassuring that the FDA has banned this stuff, but the fact remains that it’s real tough to police a free market and guarantee that every darn shrimp that ends up on your plate hasn’t gotten a dose of banned antibiotic goodness.

And the  Lucky Happy Budget Chinese Buffet that offers shrimp at all you can eat prices – think they’re using the same sources of shrimp that Whole Foods uses?

OK – I’m being a real ‘Debbie Downer’ here – you know the type – they’re at a party, people are gobbling up shrimp and having a great time, and Debbie (dressed in black, unsmiling, and reeking of a combination of contempt and distain for her fellow humanity) drops a bomb about the carcinogenic antibiotics on their plates into the light party conversation.

This post is probably going to be bookmarked by all the ‘Debbie Downers’ out there – they always need fresh ammo for the next party.

What Debbie probably won’t mention is that it’s NOT hopeless. Again from the Guardian article:

Prawns – also called shrimps – divide into cold-water and warm-water types. There are far fewer problems with cold-water prawns – the type used in most sandwiches – than with warm-water prawns. A cold-water prawn will be small and pale pink when cooked.

Unintended “bycatches” – fish accidentally caught in nets – can be a problem with cold-water prawns that have been trawled, but if you look out for cold-water prawns from Iceland you can be sure the fisheries have been well managed. Cold-water prawns are in season all year.

When it comes to warm-water prawns, which are brown when raw, the Environmental Justice Foundation says that it can give consumers no reassurance about the vast majority of tiger prawns available in the UK.

The Marine Conservation Society also lists warm-water/tiger prawns in its 20 species of fish to avoid because of the high levels of bycatch of other species when they are caught in the wild, and because of extensive habitat destruction associated with farmed production.

If you do buy them, look out for organic or Madagascan tiger prawns. The only country from which you can currently buy certified organic tiger prawns is Ecuador. Madagascar is working towards making all its prawn fisheries sustainable and is a better choice than other countries.

The above will be mentioned by another type of party-goer: the Informed Pest. 

Debbie want you to be miserable. The informed pest is sincere in their intent to be helpful, but only succeeds in making you feel stupid.

Combined, they can really screw up a party.

So anyway, on choosing shrimp, like a lot of things in life, you have to be a bit selective. 

I’ll still eat shrimp, but unless I’m fairly certain as to their origin – I’ll pass.

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