On the afternoon of January 25, 2024, in Amalapuram, India, the general manager at a shrimp-processing plant leased by the U.S. seafood company Choice Canning texted his boss. He had a big load of product—300 cases of shrimp—ready to be shipped to the American supermarket cooperative Wakefern, which owns ShopRite, but it had tested positive for antibiotics.

Since the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not approved the use of any antibiotics in shrimp farming, shrimp containing these drugs are prohibited. The plant manager, a 45-year-old American named Joshua Farinella, asked whether he should send the shipment to the customer.

Minutes later, his boss replied, “Go ahead.”

This was not an isolated case. Large amounts of shrimp that had tested positive for antibiotics seem to have been scheduled to be shipped out from the same plant, according to a recent investigation based on a review of WhatsApp exchanges between managers and bolstered by testimony from Farinella, who has come forward as a whistleblower. (Choice Canning denied that it has ever sent antibiotic-positive shrimp to the U.S.) This plant is one of hundreds of factories and shrimp farms in India that together account for more than a third of the shrimp that gets eaten in the U.S.

The decision these managers seem to have made would make sense, because the odds would be stacked in their favor. In the U.S., the agency that is responsible for stopping antibiotic-positive seafood is the FDA, which checks only 1 percent of shrimp imports for the presence of antibiotics.

Ensuring food safety in the U.S. is a messy business. Food quality and safety is overseen by 15 federal agencies that operate different regulatory requirements, legislated by at least 30 federal laws. The FDA is responsible for ensuring the safety of all domestic and imported seafood, with the single exception of catfish, which falls under the remit of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The patchwork cross-agency structure of food safety management has been criticized as “vulnerable to fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement” by the Government Accountability Office, which has called repeatedly since 2001 for the introduction of coordinated federal oversight under a single food-safety agency.

In 2020, a study in Reviews in Aquaculture identified the overuse of antibiotics in food products as “one of the greatest risks to human and animal health,” because antibiotics used in this way undermine their effectiveness as treatments for illness. A public notice issued by the FDA in September 2022 echoed that concern, warning that an increase in the use of unapproved animal drugs posed a public health risk. (The FDA did not respond to a request for comment.)

Imported seafood is often infected with salmonella or other harmful bacteria. Nearly half of all food blocked by the FDA between 2002 and 2019 was stopped for that reason. In the U.S., the problem is acute and growing: the annual incidence of antibiotic-resistant salmonella infections from food and other sources, for example, increased by 40 percent between 2006 and 2016, according to a study published in 2021 by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

A mobile testing lab used by Choice Canning to test for the presence of antibiotics in Shrimp. The lab visits aquaculture farms that produce shrimp for the company, which recently was the focus of allegations about food safety concerns.Choice Group

Globally, roughly half of the seafood eaten comes from aquaculture, where animals are farmed in close quarters and sickness is common. This is true of shrimp, which are grown by producers in huge industrial tanks or man-made ponds, with up to 150 shrimp occupying a single square meter. When shrimp ponds are poorly managed, a sludge made up of fecal matter, chemicals, and food pellets can build up in the water and cause disease, according to a 2015 study by the Washington-based research group Consumer Reports. New regulations adopted by the FDA in November 2022 identified crustaceans as one of the foods requiring additional supply-chain traceability documentation, to facilitate faster removal of contaminated products from the market, but the impact of those changes is not yet known: companies have until 2026 to make themselves compliant.

In the meantime, in an attempt to avoid infection in their farmed shrimp, many producers treat them with antibiotics. This is not exclusively an Indian problem. Recent studies of shrimp farming in Nigeria and Bangladesh found that the vast majority of the samples tested had developed at least some level of antibiotic resistance.

Internal company documents seem to indicate several problems at Choice Canning that are representative of those that afflict the shrimp industry. In September 2023, Choice Canning hired the auditing firm SGS to produce daily internal quality-assurance reports, which were to be shared only within the company. A review of more than 90 of these audits and hundreds of photos from the production line appear to reveal a pattern of sanitary and food safety issues in at the Amalapuram processing plant, including “slime” and “sludge” on machinery, black spots on shrimp, flies in the production area, spoilage and a chewing-tobacco spitoon on the factory floor. (Choice Canning said the internal audit reports produced by SGS were misinterpreted and are proof of the company’s stringent hygiene standards.)

Company documents also appear to show that spoiled or undercooked shrimp were exported to the U.S.—where it was not blocked by FDA regulators. Sometimes, problems with Choice Canning’s shrimp only became apparent once it reached the U.S. In October 2023, for example, the CEO of Choice Canning wrote to senior management that the company had to throw away $80,000 worth of shrimp for a U.S. importer because of customer complaints about a “rotten smell.” When Choice Canning’s own staff in the U.S. went to inspect the shrimp, they reported that it was undercooked and stinking. A month later, a manager wrote to other senior staffers that the company had lost another $20,000 on a shipment of shrimp for H-E-B, a major grocer in the U.S. That shipment had been found to be undercooked upon inspection by officials at another Choice Canning warehouse in Pennsylvania. That same month, both Walmart and H-E-B complained about receiving shrimp with a bad smell. Despite evidence that Choice has sent undercooked or spoiled shrimp to the U.S. as recently as 2023, the FDA has not stopped a shipment from the company since 2020.

The process that the FDA uses for deciding who it will inspect is murky and haphazard. In 2022, another major Indian exporter was inspected 20 times and accounted for one-third of violations found in shrimp from India. The following year, despite the catalog of issues detected in 2022, that company was only inspected once.

Retailers that unwittingly buy or sell seafood that has tested positive for antibiotics are not liable in the U.S., as the responsibility to test and regulate imports for pathogens and antibiotics falls to the FDA. Retailers that “knowingly export” seafood that has tested positive for antibiotics can be held liable but rarely are. The FDA has never been involved in a successful case against companies knowingly selling or buying shrimp that has tested positive for antibiotics.

Import regulations in the U.S. are also weaker than those in the European Union, South Korea, and Japan. The E.U., for example, requires pre-approval and accompanying documentation showing that each shipment of imported seafood does not exceed maximum levels of a range of substances, including antibiotics, pesticides, and feed additives. In 2016, the E.U. raised the percentage of imported Indian aquaculture products that must be tested at the border for traces of antibiotics from 10 to 50 percent. With its 1 percent test rate, the U.S. is a far more attractive market for Indian exporters.

It doesn’t help that the FDA is riven with bureaucratic inefficiencies. A 2022 report into the FDA found an internal culture of “overlapping roles and competing priorities that result in what is perceived as constant turmoil” and “an aversion to risk that undercuts its ability to meet its public health mandate.” The report, compiled at the FDA’s request by the independent non-profit Reagan-Udall Foundation, also repeatedly identified funding limitations as a key factor hampering the agency’s work on food regulation. During the past decade, the budget for the FDA’s food-safety program has remained relatively flat, whereas funding for the part of the agency that oversees pharmaceuticals has more than doubled.

The sheer scale of the FDA’s remit presents other challenges. The U.S. Department of Agriculture regulates about 6,000 domestic facilities that manufacture, process, pack, or store food—and the FDA regulates more than 90,000 of them. Additional funding could help, but throwing money at the problem won’t resolve the FDA’s shortcomings, according to Sarah Sorscher, the director of regulatory affairs at the Centre for Science in the Public Interest, a non-profit consumer-advocacy group in Washington. “It’s a culture problem,” Sorscher said. “It’s a leadership problem, because it’s a problem with underlying authority to act.”

The government has taken some steps in recent years to increase traceability of shrimp and other seafood products, but it has stopped short of significantly revamping existing food safety detection. On November 21, 2022, the FDA adopted a new regulation that required seafood companies selling crustaceans to maintain records tracing the product’s movement through each link in the supply chain. A main goal of this new rule is to enable faster identification and removal of contaminated foods to protect consumers. A new FDA role was also created in response to the criticism of the agency’s internal lack of direction: a deputy commissioner who reports directly to the head of the agency and is tasked specifically with overseeing the FDA’s food safety program.

The FDA Foods Coalition, a non-profit launched in October 2023 that aims to push for the modernization of the FDA's food safety program, broadly welcomed the changes, saying they could make the agency “more accountable and transparent.” But one coalition member, Brian Ronholm, the director for food policy at Consumer Reports, cautioned that much work was needed for the FDA to address its longstanding performance issues. "It’s very difficult to get people to think differently," Ronholm told the industry magazine Just Food. “It’s a tough road ahead, for sure.”