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November 9, 2015

United States

Texas—Shrimp Fishermen Complain About Farmed Imports and the FDA

 

The 65-cents-a-pound that fisherman Dwayne Harrison was getting for small, head-on shrimp during the last week of October 2015 was one-third the price of a year ago, and less than his catch sold for in 1998.

 

Harrison, 51, is among Gulf shrimpers who say they’re leaving the business or are barely staying afloat, and many blame imports, which make up more than 90 percent of the shrimp market in the United States.  In 2014, imports rose by 143 million pounds and are up another 2 percent in 2015.

 

While driven to the brink, shrimpers in Texas also are driven to anger by the indifference of American consumers buying foreign, farm-raised shrimp that might be tainted with antibiotics.

 

Pointing to some restaurants, Harrison said, “People will be watching our boats come in while being served shrimp from half way around the world that are fed antibiotics to keep them alive.”

 

In September, Texas vessels landed 6.1 million pounds of shrimp, 600,000 pounds more than September of last year, the USA National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported.  For the year, the catch in Texas is 8 million pounds higher than at this time in 2014, attributed to abundant spring rains that moved shrimp from bays and estuaries into the Gulf.  The bigger catch in Texas, it turns out, almost exactly matches the decline in Louisiana from a year ago.  But that hasn’t made up for the abysmal prices shrimpers are getting across the Gulf—one-third lower than a year ago for large shrimp and half the price for medium-sized shrimp.  Smaller shrimp prices were just one-third of what they were in 2014.

 

Andrea Hance, executive director of the Texas Shrimp Association, said the number of permits across the Gulf had shrunk from 5,000 in the early 2000s to about 1,400 currently.  Of those, roughly 1,100 are operating, she said.  Hance, who operates two vessels out of Brownsville, said the 2015 catch had decreased after a good start in the fall, although the price she got during the last week of October for her large brown shrimp had ticked up to $3.25 a pound, albeit about half of what it was a year ago.  Overall, imports were down 6.5 percent in September, a hopeful sign for the Texas industry.

 

Gulf shrimpers believe that Malaysia shrimp often originates in China, no matter what shipping manifests say.  In 2005, after proof that Chinese shrimp exporters were cheating at trade, the USA Commerce Department slapped on duties that effectively doubled the cost of most Chinese shrimp.  Investigators have discovered several instances of Chinese shrimp shipped through Malaysia, committing high-seas fraud to evade millions of dollars in anti-dumping duties imposed on imports of Chinese farmed shrimp.

 

The Chinese are by far the world’s biggest producers of farmed shrimp.  One company, Zhanjiang Guolian Aquatic Products, situated in the coastal province of Guangdong, has a shrimp processing plant that covers an area equivalent to 10 Walmart superstores.

 

Among thousands of secret cables released by WikiLeaks was a 2007 message from the USA Consulate in Guangzhou to the CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency reflecting worries by top Chinese officials about FDA findings of tainted shrimp.  The cable was written after USA officials toured a Guolian plant.  Trouble has persisted.  In February 2015, Guolian had three entries of shrimp refused in New York after lab tests showed they were adulterated with drug residues.

 

Where shrimpers gather, the talk is about sagging prices, imports and the blessing of low fuel prices.  Profit, they say, is elusive.  In the first 30 days of the season, Derek Blume, fishing out of Port Bolivar, caught 50,000 pounds of shrimp in the Gulf.  After expenses, he made $6.95 an hour.  Jack Blume, a fourth-generation shrimper, gave up and is working on a tugboat.  His brother, Jack, operates JB’s Seafood in Crystal Beach, Texas.  Once, 30 trawlers lined the inlet around his business.  Now there are just five, all owned by the Blumes.  “Imports have basically ruined two or three generations of shrimpers.  And there’s no young blood to take over,” Jack Blume said.

 

Texas shrimpers used to be wary of talking about tainted imports, fearful that consumers would think all shrimp contained antibiotics.  Now, they bring it up.

 

Jack Blume offered this analysis: “If you eat antibiotics for 15 or 20 years, it may not hurt you, but when you need that medicine, it ain’t going to work.”

 

The USA Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been criticized over the years for lack of attention to antibiotics.  In 2014, it inspected just 3.7 percent of 110,000 shrimp shipments and tested far less than that in its labs.  What’s more, the FDA, citing lack of resources, is ignoring a 2011 law ordering inspections of thousands of foreign food plants.

 

Canada tests seafood for 40 unapproved drugs and some European countries screen for 50.  The FDA checks for residues of no more than 16.  Earlier this year, the USA General Accounting Office (GAO) reported that the FDA isn’t coming close to complying with the 2011 Food Safety Modernization Act.  Within a year after the law took effect, FDA was required to inspect 600 foreign facilities.  The law said FDA needed to double the number of inspections from the previous year—in other words, it should have completing 4,800 inspections in 2014 and 9,600 in 2015.  In fact, it only conducted 1,323 inspections in 2014, and said it doesn’t plan more than 1,200 a year in the foreseeable future.

 

Responding to the GAO, FDA cited “the enormity of the additional funding that would be needed” to comply with the law and said its money could be better spent.

 

In interviews, FDA officials expressed confidence in an electronic system that screens 100 percent of shrimp imports.  The system uses a point system based on factors such as type of food and manufacturer problems in the past.  Domenic Veneziano, FDA director of import operations said FDA teams-up with USA Customs and Border Protection to protect against port shopping.  In an interview, Veneziano said he believes FDA has improved its capacity to target high-risk shipments.  “I think overall, our system is working well,” he said.

 

FDA puts high-risk companies on an import alert, otherwise known as the red list, allowing inspectors to detain shipments until they are proven to be free of drugs.  Of the 38 foreign companies red-listed list for shrimp adulterated with nitrofurans—a class of antibiotics banned in the United States as suspected cancer-causers—27 are in Malaysia.

 

Keeping tabs on offenders can be hard because of the changing cast of characters.  “Shippers suddenly appear, export large quantities of shrimp, and then disappear, only to be replaced by new shippers who disappear just as suddenly,” said Nathan Rickard, a trade lawyer in Washington who tracks global shipping for the Southern Shrimp Alliance.

 

Source: San Antonio Express News.  Texas Shrimpers Citing a Danger With Imports; They’re Pointing to Seafood Tainted by Antibiotics.  Bill Lambrecht (bill.lambrecht@hearstdc.com).  November 7, 2015.

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