Farmed shrimp from Thailand, Vietnam, and India could be traced back to their countries of origin with more than 98 percent confidence through a process known as elemental profiling, according to a new World Wildlife Fund (WWF) report.
With greater refinement, elemental profiling may help importers, customs officials, retailers, and others trace globally traded seafood back to its source, which can shed light on production practices with critical environmental and social implications.
The report, conducted by WWF researchers and supported by Auburn University and Ocean University of China, looked at farmed Pacific white shrimp (Litopenaeus vannamei) from three major exporting countries – India, Vietnam, and Thailand. The study concluded that elemental profiling could distinguish shrimp from different countries with a 98 percent level of certainty.
“Traceability allowing a consumer to know where their shrimp came from largely isn’t possible in the mainstream markets today,” said Dr Aaron McNevin, director of sustainable food at WWF. “Without knowing where a product is coming from, it is impossible to determine if the environment at a farm is being compromised or if workers are being mistreated. Elemental profiling gets us one step closer to farm origin and that’s what we are after.”
Today, when it is even possible, tracking farmed shrimp to its source depends on records often provided by exporters. There is no objective way to verify these records with certainty, leaving opportunities for mislabeling and fraud. Lack of transparency and traceability prevents buyers from obtaining critical information including environmental stewardship and natural resource use, as well as worker welfare and food safety.
The average American eats about four pounds of shrimp per year, over 80 percent of which is imported. Overall, the US imported 567,551 tons of shrimp valued at $6.7 billion in 2014 from 39 countries, many from farms.
“We have attempted elemental profiling in the southeastern US and it worked well for catfish and shrimp – the logical choice was to expand to the major farming countries,” said Dr Claude Boyd, Professor of Aquaculture and Aquatic Sciences at Auburn University. “This research demonstrated that we also have some ability to differentiate shrimp from provinces and states in countries, albeit not to the same level of confidence as the country.”
Elemental profiling is the process of analyzing a set of the elements that make up a material or species. In this case, 23 elements found in shrimp were examined. While the study confirmed accuracy in the traceability of shrimp to a parent country, it found that trying to trace the origin down to states or provinces showed promise, but was not as reliable as traceability on the country scale.