Know Your Supplier (Continued): Ethoxyquin, Nitrofurans, and Chloramphenicol

In September, the FDA refused 148 shipments of seafood imports.  Seven of these refusals (less than five percent) were of frozen shrimp imports.  Six shipments of shrimp, sent from exporters in Ecuador, India, Indonesia, and Vietnam, were refused for the presence of salmonella.  And one shipment of shrimp from Bangladesh was refused because of nitrofurans and veterinary drug residues.

At the same time, last month Japan rejected seventeen shipments of shrimp – constituting over 18% of all food products rejected by Japan in September.  Each of the seventeen shipments originated in either India or Vietnam.

Fifteen of the seventeen shipments were rejected for the presence of ethoxyquin.  Similarly, in August Japan had refused another eleven shipments of shrimp from India and Vietnam for ethoxyquin.  Press reports indicate that Vietnamese and Indian shrimp exports to Japan are down substantially because of these refusals.  Without a major market, shrimp produced in these countries is likely to end up in markets with far greater tolerance for ethoxyquin, like the European Union and the United States.

What is ethoxyquin?  It is a synthetic antioxidant added to fish feed to stabilize fat content.  This prevents the feed from going rancid.  For similar reasons, ethoxyquin is also used as a preservative in other animal feed, dehydrated crops, and sorghum (a cereal crop used for animal feed).  Ethoxyquin is also registered as a pesticide used to protect against discoloration of pears post-harvest.

Ethoxyquin is included in the “Everything Added to Food in the United States” (EAFUS) list published by the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, under a program called the Priority-based Assessment of Food Additives (PAFA).   The EAFUS list is made up of ingredients added directly to food that the FDA had either approved as food additives or affirmed as “Generally Recognized As Safe” (GRAS).  Ethoxyquin is not on the GRAS list, but is included as an EPA approved food additive.

Thus, unlike the banned antibiotics and fungicides used in foreign aquaculture, ethoxyquin represents a chemical often encountered by the American consumer.  The EPA’s describes ethoxyquin as used to preserve color in the production of chili powder, paprika, and ground chili.  The tolerances established for ethoxyquin both in this country and the European Union are substantially higher than they are in Japan.

Japan’s concern regarding ethoxyquin in imported shrimp is specific to that government’s judgment about the welfare of its population.  Japan’s domestic action will lead to greater interest in our market as a dumping ground for shrimp not wanted elsewhere.  And while the presence of ethoxyquin will not set off public safety alarm bells in the United States, exports of shrimp from India and Vietnam continue to pose food safety concerns for other reasons.

For example, the other two shipments of shrimp rejected by Japan in September were for the presence of banned antibiotics.  Both were from Vietnamese exporters that also export to the United States, Soc Trang Seafood Joint Stock Company and C.P. Vietnam Livestock Corporation.  The presence of banned antibiotics continues to plague the Vietnamese aquaculture industry.   In September alone, Canada added four Vietnamese seafood exporters to its Mandatory Inspection List for these harmful chemicals.  Lang Tram Seafoods (a Sea Minh Hai’s factory), Quangninh Sea Products Export Company, and Thuan Thien Producing Trading Limited Company were added for fluoroquinolones.  Thuan Thien was also listed for Gentian Violet.   And Minh Phu Seafood Corporation was listed for both fluoroquinolones and tetracycline.

Japan also rejected a shipment of shrimp from the Indian exporter Shiva Frozen Food Exports Private Limited in August for the presence of nitrofurans.  Canada has included at least three Indian seafood exporters – West Coast Frozen Foods; Unitriveni Overseas; and Sai Marine Exports Private Limited – on its Mandatory Inspection List so far this year for the presence of nitrofurans.  Moreover, the European Union’s Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF) indicates that nitrofurans were discovered in six shipments of Indian shrimp to five different European countries so far this year.

The prevalent use of antibiotics in Indian shrimp aquaculture is not a secret.  In an academic article published last year, Indian scientists reported on the results of a survey of about fifty freshwater shrimp farms in West Bengal.  The survey found that 40% of the shrimp farms used chloramphenicol, 10% used nitrofurans, 23% used oxytetracycline, and over one-third used malachite green.  The article highlighted the dangers posed by the use of chloramphenicol and nitrofurans:

The antibiotics chloramphenicol (mostly used in the farms) and nitrofurans are banned worldwide for use in the production of foods because of their serious side effects.  Chloramphenicol may cause fatal aplastic anemia and nitrofurans are classified as carcinogens.

In another academic paper by Indian scientists, delivered to the International Conference on Chemical, Biological and Environment Sciences in December of 2011, the frequent use of chloramphenicol to prevent disease in both shrimp hatcheries and farms was emphasized.  Tamilnadu-based scientists reported finding chloramphenicol in 25 out of the 40 samples taken from shrimp farms (the paper states that only two of these samples were “above the permissible limits”).  The paper further asserted that the use of antibiotics is an economic necessity in shrimp hatcheries:

Out of all farmed samples, 70% of hatchery samples are more exposed to antibiotics due to the fact that they are less immune and affected during post larval stages.  All penaeid shrimp in hatcheries and farms encounter bacterial problems that impact on production.  Antibiotic treatments to control pathogenic bacterial problems have been  practiced in hatchery to yield better production.  Vibriosis is a major problem in shrimp aquaculture   V.harveyi a luminous species has been reported to cause heavy losses in shrimp hatcheries and farm.  So the use of an antibiotic is mandatory in hatchery in order to prevent the stock from the bacterial contamination.

A post on a blog dedicated to aquaculture in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu (“Aquaculture – An Innovative Subject Nowadays to All People”) recommends that shrimp farmers treat certain bacterial infections, such as luminous vibriosis and vibriosis, with an “Anti-microbial preparation application through feeds” including sarafloxacin, a banned fluoroquinolone.  The post expressly notes that fluoroquinolones are banned and helpfully explains that “[i]f the shrimp have been treated for unhealthy conditions with antibiotics, the recommended withdrawal period should be followed.”

The use of banned antibiotics in Indian aquaculture is so prevalent that even the FDA has found incidents of contamination.  In August, FDA refused a shipment of black tiger shrimp from Suryamitra Exim Pvt. Limited, an Indian exporter, for the presence of nitrofurans.  Nevertheless, despite the overwhelming evidence of a problem, no Indian exporters are listed on the FDA’s Import Alert for unapproved drugs(16-124) and only one Indian exporter (GVR Exports) is listed on the FDA’s more specific Import Alert for nitrofurans (16-129).

A flood of Indian and Vietnamese shrimp contaminated with ethoxyquin from Japan is not good news for the U.S. shrimp industry in terms of our prices, but it is unlikely to capture the attention of American consumers.

That is not the end of the story.

The aquaculture industries in both India and Vietnam have a shameful history of using banned, harmful antibiotics and fungicides to boost production.  There is no indication that this has stopped.

Unfortunately, there is also no indication that the FDA is going to change its approach to the problem.

That leaves us.  For those of us in the industry, it is our responsibility to make sure that everyone understands that this problem has not gone away.  The evidence is overwhelming, undeniable, and available for all to evaluate on their own.

John Williams


Read the EPA’s Reregistration Report on Ethoxyquin,


Read the article on the survey of West Bengal shrimp farms:


Read the paper delivered to the International Conference on Chemical, Biological and Environment Sciences


Read the “Shrimp Disease and Treatment” from “Aquaculture – An Innovative Subject Nowadays to All People,” 

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