Consumer Reports: Can antibiotics in shrimp spark allergic reactions?

Each of us eats, on average, almost 4 pounds per year, making shrimp more popular than tuna. Once considered a special-occasion treat, shrimp has become so ubiquitous that we now expect to find it on the menu whether we’re at a pricey restaurant or a fast-food joint.

In fact, Americans eat about three times more shrimp than we did 35 years ago. To satisfy our insatiable appetite, the U.S. has become a massive importer: About 94 percent of our shrimp supply comes from abroad, from countries such as India, Indonesia, and Thailand.

But our love affair with shrimp does have a downside. Most of the shrimp we import is “farmed”—grown in huge industrial tanks or shallow, man-made ponds that can stretch for acres. In some cases 150 shrimp can occupy a single square meter (roughly the size of a 60-inch flat-screen television) where they’re fed commercial pellets, sometimes containing antibiotics to ward off disease. If ponds aren’t carefully managed, a sludge of fecal matter, chemicals, and excess food can build up and decay. Wastewater can be periodically discharged into nearby waterways. “Bacteria and algae can begin to grow and disease can set in, prompting farmers to use drugs and other chemicals that can remain on the shrimp and seep into the surrounding environment,” says Urvashi Rangan, Ph.D., executive director of the Consumer Reports Food Safety and Sustainability Center. Those shrimp-farming practices raise a variety of concerns—not just about how safe shrimp are to eat but also about the environmental damage that can be caused by farming them that way.

For shoppers the dilemma starts at the grocery store, where it’s difficult to know what to buy. Labels and names can be confusing, meaningless, or—worse—deceptive. Sellers may not always tell (or even know) the truth about the origins of the shrimp they offer. And the allure of a label proclaiming that shrimp are “natural” or “wild” can obscure the fact that some expensive varieties aren’t necessarily fresher or more flavorful.

That’s why Consumer Reports decided to take an in-depth look at shrimp from a testing, tasting, and shopping viewpoint. We unearthed some worrisome findings, including bacteria on more than half the raw samples we tested and illegal anti­biotic residues on 11 samples. But there was also good news, in that there are plenty of healthful choices available.

There’s no foolproof way to make sure you won’t get sick from the bacteria on shrimp, but following our safe-prep rules will certainly improve your odds. And to make sure you’re buying the cleanest, most responsibly fished or raised shrimp—and that you’re getting what you pay for at the fish counter—use our guide on these pages.

Alarm bells sounded for some consumers who read our recent report, “How Safe Is Your Shrimp?” Our analysis of 342 packages of frozen shrimp, purchased across the U.S., detected antibiotics in 11 samples of imported farmed shrimp. People allergic to those antibiotics, including some of our co-workers, came to us with concerns that their favorite food could result in an itchy rash—or worse.

Consider the dilemma of the reader who serves up a giant platter of shrimp to her guests every New Year’s Eve. “As someone with allergies to sulfa drugs and penicillin, would the amounts in shrimp be enough to cause an allergic reaction?” she asked.

  • How to safely prep shrimp

According to Franklin Adkinson, M.D., a professor of medicine at the Johns Hopkins Asthma and Allergy Center, the level of antibiotics we found in shrimp are highly unlikely to cause a problem. There is very little research focusing on allergic reactions caused by antibiotics in food, Adkinson says, but “theoretically, the amount in a reasonable portion of shrimp would not be enough to provoke an allergic reaction.”

Just how much of the drugs are in antibiotic-tainted shrimp? Judging from what we found in our samples, an 8-ounce serving of shrimp would contain about one seven-thousandth of a standard medical dose of antibiotics. “This dose is too small to cause an allergic reaction,” Adkinson says.

The real problem with antibiotics in shrimp—or any other food—is that overuse of the drugs in food production is leading to the global rise of deadly antibiotic-resistant “superbugs.” “Eventually, these antibiotics may no longer work to treat common human ailments,” says Urvashi Rangan, Ph.D., executive director of the Consumer Reports Food Safety and Sustainability Center. Antibiotics aren’t approved for shrimp farming in the U.S., and they are not permitted in imported shrimp.

What does that mean for you?

We found very low levels of antibiotics in some of our samples, but that doesn’t mean that shrimp with higher levels don’t get into the U.S. food supply. If you’re concerned about antibiotics for any reason, choosing responsibly caught wild shrimp, such as those certified by the Marine Stewardship Council, is a safer option. Or look for farmed shrimp with the following labels: Naturland, Aquaculture Stewardship Council, or Whole Foods Market Responsibly Farmed.

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