Seafood – Safe Food? Or How to Avoid the “Bad Shrimp”
Eating the Bad Shrimp: Most likely it has happened to us all. A few hours after ingesting the most delightful seafood platter, our stomach begins to grumble and protest and then—total intestinal rebellion! For the next two to three days our entire body is devastated by cramps, aches, chills and overall weakness. And most irritating—our dining companions seem fine even though they ate the same food. As a colleague of mine from Latin America said, “you got the bad shrimp!” Ugh. Just my luck!
Upon recovery, we swear we will never touch seafood again. Yet, we do. Usually by choice—because the pleasure it gives outweighs the perceived risks. But for millions of people in the world, seafood in one form or another is their primary source of protein and important micronutrients. Not eating it would deprive them of an important and essential part of their diet. Yet, the health risks of consuming improperly stored and handled seafood can be quite serious, especially for consumers who may have pre-existing conditions. Maximizing the nutritional benefits of seafood while reducing the health risks is the challenge facing fisheries development, especially in the artisanal informal sector. How do we minimize the possibility of eating “the bad shrimp” while continuing to fill the seafood platter of a growing global population?
Filling the Food Security Seafood Platter: Seafood products provide about 17 percent of global animal proteins and essential micronutrients. Populations in Low Income Food Deficit Countries (LIFDCs), Africa, and Asia rely even more on fish sourced through artisanal fisheries for animal proteins in their diets, 24.7 percent, 18.2 percent and 23.2 percent of their intake respectively. This contribution can reach 40 percent or more of total animal proteins in some small island developing states and in countries such as Bangladesh, Cambodia, Côte d’Ivoire, Equatorial Guinea, the Gambia, Ghana, Indonesia, Myanmar, Philippines, Sao Tome and Principe, Senegal, Sierra Leone, and Sri Lanka. With a world population expected to reach 9.8 billion by 2050, sustainable fisheries and aquaculture have an important role to play in ensuring food security as the increased demand will challenge fish production over the coming decades. While increasing production and productivity is necessary, so is keeping seafood safe for consumers. Several pathogens stand ready to contaminate this nutritious food product at many points along the supply chain of artisanal fisheries.
Profile of a “Bad Shrimp”: Some of the nasty bacteria found in seafood that may cause foodborne illness are Vibrio, Salmonella, Shigella, and Listeria. In the case of the United States, the Vibrio species is the most prevalent, accounting for 38 percent of the outbreaks associated with seafood and 54 percent of the illnesses from 1973 to 2006. Salmonella and Shigella each was associated with about 10 percent of the reported illnesses, and Listeria monocytogenes approximately 1 percent. For viral agents, norovirus, associated with both bivalve mollusks and finfish, caused 16 percent of all seafood-related outbreaks and almost 30 percent of the illnesses in the same time period. Hepatitis A, primarily associated with bivalve mollusks from polluted waters, caused 5 percent or less of all seafood-related outbreaks and illnesses. Conditions in the developing world, while exact statistics are unknown, are—at least—similar to those recorded in the United States or worse given the conditions described below.
How Does a Good Shrimp Go Bad? Obviously, preventing the growth of these bacterial and viral pathogens is important to prevent infection or intoxication when seafood is eaten. While pathogens may be present at low levels when fish or shellfish are harvested, many are introduced or multiplied during handling and processing or by unsanitary practices. Most artisanal fisheries are composed of a variety of small to medium-sized actors—from fisherfolk to vendors to processors to transporters—without any overarching hierarchical coordinating structure. Often, this lack of organization can lead to market inefficiencies and high rates of food contamination, spoilage, and loss. A closer look at the “pathogen pathway” in the seafood supply chain in artisanal fisheries helps us to better understand where contamination occurs and how it could potentially be reduced.
Capture – In most artisanal fishing systems, the boats utilized are quite basic and lack on-board, short-term storage equipment. The catch is stored in the hull of the boat without any cooling mechanisms and depending on the length of time at sea and the intensity of the sun, the quality and safety could suffer from spoilage and possible contamination. In fact, temperature control of seafood is a recurring concern throughout the supply chain.
Landing – Fish landing sites are associated with small-scale marine and inland fisheries. They provide a location for first point of sale for products and provide a place where fishers can leave their boats and obtain supplies such as food, fuel, and ice. The facilities, services, and access to market vary. It is these characteristics, as well as the capacity of the users, which influence how fish and fish products are handled and traded, and hence the food contamination, loss and waste that can occur. The way in which fish is treated at landing centers affects food safety at downstream stages of the value chain: contamination at this point can multiply as products move further downstream. In the artisanal fisheries sector, limitations or deficiencies in infrastructure at landing sites indicate that individual productivity is low, and levels of spoilage and waste are high.
Processing – Products of artisanal fish processing (dried, salted and dried, smoked) often undergo a period of storage prior to being sold, distributed and consumed. Such storage typically takes place at the processing location and/or at a market. Both low and high value fish are processed. Depending on the processing techniques (hygiene, handling, exposure to insects, etc.) and technology, a lot of contamination of seafood can take place at this point. Insufficient drying can leave excess moisture in the product, which can result in spoilage and the proliferation of pathogens.
Storage – Fresh seafood and products of artisanal fish processing (dried, salted and dried, smoked) often undergo a period of storage prior to being sold, distributed and consumed. Such storage typically takes place at the processing location and/or at a market. Product type, moisture content, design of storage facility, length of storage time, humidity, temperature, and hygiene and sanitation practices can influence the likelihood of food contamination, loss, and waste during storage. Processed products can be stored for up to several months depending on these variables, including the type of product and its moisture content. Fresh products are generally moved along fairly quickly, as adequate cold storage is lacking in artisanal systems.
Transport – Transport is an integral part of most, if not all, fish value chains. Transport can occur at many different stages between harvesting and final consumption. A wide range of transport means are used. Fish and fish products are transported on foot, by bicycle, canoe, motorcycle, rail, pick-up truck, boat, lorry, refrigerated truck, on ships in reefer containers, and by air. Live fish, fresh fish, frozen fish, dried, smoked, canned and all other types of product experience some form of transportation. Transport times and distances may be short (e.g. several hours) or long (e.g. several weeks).
The mode of transport used in a given situation is influenced by, among other things: the product type and value, the location of the market, food safety requirements and other standards to be met, and the prevailing socio-economic conditions, transport infrastructure and services available. Poorly functioning equipment (especially cooling) and cleanliness, poor roads, weather delays, etc. can adversely affect food quality and food safety and, ultimately, food spoilage and lost.
Retail and Wholesale – Artisanal processed dried, salted or smoked products are sold in domestic urban and rural markets, as well as sub-regional and international markets. These products are often transported long distances and marketed in areas far from where capture and processing take place. Food contamination, loss, and waste can occur if the product is damaged or stored for long periods under inadequate conditions, resulting in microbial contamination and insect infestation.
Fresh fish is retailed in a variety of forms from whole, unprocessed and unpackaged, to prepared in modified atmosphere packs. It is sold to consumers by retailers in markets and small shops, as well as “door to door” by mobile fish vendors. Some key causes of food contamination and spoilage at this stage include:
- Quality deterioration during chill or cold storage.
- Product reaches its “best before” date before it is sold.
- Poor handling.
- Lack of chilling or poor chilling practice.
- Inadequate packaging and storage.
- Purchase of poor-quality fish.
Reducing the Chance of Eating the Bad Shrimp: Artisanal fishery systems—comprised of multiple actors, different technologies, and various practices and behaviors—have adaptively evolved over a long period of time to the local environment and market demands. Introducing a food safety perspective requires understanding the system’s complexity and inter-related components, and where precisely the greatest risks for contamination and spoilage lie. Participatory engagement with the different independent actors is critical to understand their perspectives, barriers, and potential motivations/incentives, change practices, and adopt new technologies that would improve food safety. Consequently, conducting a thorough food safety situational analysis (FSSA) is an essential first step to identify where the greatest risks are in the value chain and would help define potential interventions. For example, if an FSSA revealed that a significant portion of food contamination occurs during the processing stage, then promoting the right processing technologies that avoid ground contact and allow for high moisture extract could reduce the risk of contamination and spoilage. Or if storage is the main problem, improving storage technologies, especially chilling technologies, would reduce food spoilage and loss at this stage of the value chain. If landing of seafood catch is the principal problem, then investing in improved landing sites with appropriate infrastructure could potentially reduce the risk of contamination at this first, post-capture step.
For seafood to be safe in a sustainable way, it is important to understand that artisanal fisheries are comprised of multiple actors who are essentially independent entrepreneurs that operate in both the informal and formal sectors of the economy. In order for solutions to be sustainable, effective food safety interventions need to be co-designed with these businesses along the supply chain so that they are adaptable and profitable. Business Drivers for Food Safety (BD4FS), a new Feed the Future initiative funded by USAID and implemented by Food Enterprise Solutions (FES), embraces this perspective: food enterprise capacity building for improved food safety. In the seafood value chain, the key “pinch points” in the fisheries value chain can be identified through an FSSA. This, followed by engagement with the various actors to co-design the appropriate interventions, is critical to sustainably reduce the risk of pathogen contamination to ensure consumers have a better chance of avoiding and not eating “the bad shrimp.”