With Americans eating more shrimp -- more than 1 billion pounds a year or 4 pounds per person -- than salmon, crab and trout combined, the crustacean seems to be the U.S.'s favorite seafood.
"It's all over the menu," said New Orleans chef Brian Landry of the seafood restaurant Borgne. "The shrimper men hit the dock yesterday morning. By 3 p.m. the shrimp were in our kitchen."
Landry uses only local gulf shrimp, but most Americans don't know that 90 percent of the shrimp they purchase at the grocery store -- and in most restaurants -- never see a shrimper or even a fishing boat.
Most of the shrimp eaten in the United States is imported from countries including India, Thailand and Vietnam, according to the federal government. And critics say too often the shrimp is raised in small, overcrowded pens on shrimp farms. *
And too often, the shrimp is raised in shockingly disgusting conditions that promote disease.
"A shrimp that's farm-raised in a foreign country to produce the yield they need and the quantity they need, they'll use any means necessary that we don't use here," Landry said.
To keep the shrimp from dying in diseased waters from their own muck, some shrimp farmers routinely pour antibiotics that are not allowed in the U.S. into their pens -- and some of it is reaching U.S. grocery stores.
"They're very, very crowded [pens] and there's a lot of disease problems so the farms end up using a lot of antibiotics and chemicals to keep the shrimp alive and grow them faster," said Patty Lovera of Food and Water Watch.
FDA Inspects No More Than 2 Percent of Shrimp
Because there is so much shrimp flooding the system, though, the Food and Drug Administration currently inspects no more than 2 percent of it.
The government says it pressures the foreign shrimp industry to police itself and ramps up inspection on producers who have been caught using banned chemicals.
"Probably 1 [percent] to 2 percent of the products coming in actually get manually inspected," said FDA commissioner Margaret Hamburg. "We can't screen every container that comes in, open every box, so what we are doing is [trying] to apply the smartest and best strategy to this, which is a risk-analytic approach."
"It's a system that is producing good results," said Michael Taylor, deputy commissioner for foods at the FDA. "People can be confident that there's a system in place that does an effective job of minimizing these residues. It's not perfect. There's room for improvement. We're doing a number of things to be able to do that but we think people can have confidence in the safety of seafood."
The FDA says that despite its zero tolerance policy on antibiotics, an occasional antibiotic-contaminated shrimp is not a danger to consumers.
To find out just how much contaminated shrimp was reaching U.S. grocery stores, 30 samples of fresh shrimp were purchased across the country.
Those samples were then sent to the nationally recognized Institute of Environmental and Human Health food lab at Texas Tech University and tested for potentially dangerous antibiotics. Shrimp in three of the 30 samples were found to contain banned antibiotics.
"About 10 percent of them showed evidence of pharmaceutical residue in the muscle tissue alone, which people eat," said Dr. Ronald Kendall, a professor of environmental toxicology and the institute's director.