The Shrimp Is a Lie

A third of the shrimp sold in restaurants and supermarkets are, a new study has found, misleadingly labeled.

"Shrimp," Bubba Blue tells Forrest Gump, "is the fruit of the sea." You can take a group of the little crustraceans, he explains, and "barbecue it, boil it, broil it, bake it, saute it." You can put it in "shrimp kabobs, shrimp creole, shrimp gumbo." You can pan-fry it, deep-fry it, stir-fry it. You can include it in "pineapple shrimp, lemon shrimp, coconut shrimp, pepper shrimp, shrimp soup, shrimp stew, shrimp salad, shrimp and potatoes, shrimp burgers, and shrimp sandwiches."
Bubba didn't even mention the many culinary possibilities offered by your scampis and your tempuras and your lo meins. He didn't mention the simple glories of the shrimp cocktail. He didn't mention that shrimp is, officially, Americans' favorite seafood.
He didn't have to.
But for all the wondrous things shrimp are, there is something they are not, always: honest. You may have suspected that the crustaceans—what with their soft shells and their tiny legs and their tendency to turn from gray to pink in just the tiniest bit of heat—have their secrets. Now, we know they do. A third of the shrimp sold in restaurants and supermarkets are, a new study has found, misleadingly labeled. Farm-raised masquerading as wild-caught. One species masquerading as another.
The advocacy group Oceana tested 143 shrimp products—sourced from 111 different establishments—comparing the claims labels made about the shrimp's origin to the shrimp's actual DNA. (If this sounds familiar, it's because Oceana is the same group that published the results of a fish-species test last year—the study that found, among other things, that nearly a third of all the seafood sold in restaurants and supermarkets across the country was fraudulently labeled.) Oceana scientists tested samples of the tasty crustacean in four regions across the country: the Gulf of Mexico; Washington, D.C.; New York City; and Portland, Oregon. New York City had the highest amount of misrepresentation (43 percent), followed by Washington (33 percent), the Gulf of Mexico (30 percent), and Portland (5 percent).

Shrimp Misrepresentation by Region

When it came to the specifics of origin and species, Oceana found yet more discrepancies. The organization found that farmed whiteleg shrimp is often sold as "wild" shrimp (or, nearly as misleadingly, "Gulf" shrimp and "rock" shrimp). On top of that, some 40 percent of the 20 shrimp species or categories that the group collected and identified weren't previously known to be sold in the United States.

Misrepresented Shrimp

The study also found evidence that the shrimp industry may be doing itself a disservice: None of the samples that were labeled as "farmed" were mislabeled, it learned, while more than half of the samples that were labeled simply as "shrimp" were actually wild-caught.

Oceana has long been an advocate of better labeling for the American seafood industry; the shrimp study is part of that work. We tend to think of "shrimp" not as animals, but as food; as a partial result of this, we don't think to question matters of origin and species. We let ourselves be lied to, basically. One grouping of salad-sized shrimp, which Oceana researchers purchased in the Gulf, contained a branded coral shrimp—a species that is, the organization notes, "an aquarium pet not intended to be consumed as food."