In China, the Curious Case of the Gel-Injected Shrimp
In China, the Curious Case of the Gel-Injected Shrimp

Ms. Yang in the southern China port city of Guangzhou bought six high priced giant tiger prawns in October—she was happy with the purchase until she found gel inside the heads of the prawns.

Such gel, the presence of which is not typically detectable upon superficial inspection, is injected some time between when the shrimp are caught and when they’re sold, in order to add weight and thus earn a greater profit. Shrimp sold live have not been injected, because the injection would kill the shrimp.

Chinese food authorities have not been particularly active in pursuing the cases brought to their attention, according to interviews and news reports, and there is not even a consensus at which point in the production line the operation takes place.

Seafood is sold by factories, even we merchants don’t know which set of goods is injected with gel.
— A seafood merchant in Beijing

China is the third largest exporter of seafood to the United States, and it also exports significant amounts of shrimp and catfish, representing 2 of the 10 most consumed seafood products in the country. Nearly $150 million worth of shrimp were imported from China between January and October 2015, according to data by the U.S. Census Bureau.

The problem of adulterated shrimp has persisted for over a decade, despite new cases regularly reported in the Chinese press. Some of the first well-publicized cases of the gel-injected shrimp appeared in 2005, the same year in which the municipal government of Tianjin launched a strike-hard campaign against shrimp injectors. The report, which referred to the campaign gave no details about how many were arrested, or whether the shrimp adulteration rings were broken.

It is unclear how much, or if any of the gel-injected shrimp make their way to these shores, but food safety experts said there is reason to be concerned. The Food and Drug Administration issued an import alert on Dec. 11, 2015, about the “presence of new animals drugs and/or unsafe food additives” from seafood imported in China, including shrimp.

An Unwelcome Gelatinous Addition

In some of the cases that have been examined—not always an easy task in China—the gelatin found in the shrimp was the innocuous, edible kind. It is usually extracted from animal skins and bones, and composed of collagen. But because the operation is illegal and unsupervised, there is no telling whether the next gel used will be industrial.

Wu Wenhui, a professor at Shanghai Ocean University, said in an interview in the Chinese press that customers should be wary about industrial gel ending up in shrimp, given that it’s cheaper than the edible version. “Industrial gel is used for furniture, print, and contains many heavy metals such as lead and mercury, which harms the liver and blood, and is even carcinogenic.”

Gel-injected shrimp purchased by a Chinese Internet user, alongside a picture of the gel found inside them. (Weibo.com)
Gel-injected shrimp purchased by a Chinese Internet user, alongside a picture of the gel found inside them. (Weibo.com)

But the act of injection is itself potentially unsafe.

“Even if what was injected was edible gel, which may not itself be harmful, who can guarantee that the process is aseptic? ” said Liu Huiping, a member of the executive council of the Tianjin aquatic products association, in an interview with the Beijing News.

Mr. Zhang, a seafood merchant in Shandong Province told Chinese media that large shrimp such as Penaeus and tiger prawns, which are mostly imported from Southeast Asia, are candidates for injection because of their size. “Their individual prices are high, and more money could be extracted from adding to their weight.”

Why It Continues

The scandal of injecting shrimp has been known, and has persisted, for over a decade.

Commentary articles in the Beijing Youth Daily point out that this scandal exposes the ineffectiveness of China’s food regulation system. According to these articles, there are too many departments and an unclear division of labor. With poor cooperation between the departments, holes in regulations easily emerge. Even with the reorganization of the State Food and Drug Administration in 2013, the situation hasn’t improved.

There appears to be a lack of will to solve the problem. An investigation by Beijing News was revealing. Cui Hongtao, the deputy director of administration for industry and commerce in the seaport of Tianjin told Beijing News that the administration for Industry and Commerce only accepts products for investigation that have already failed the Agricultural Department’s examination.

They will get less than 2% of what’s coming in, so importers will take their chances sometimes. … They might try to send in something that’s not okay.
— Patty Lovera, assistant director, U.S.-based Food & Water Watch

The journalist then took shrimp to several Agricultural Department offices, and was told that the examination could not be conducted without a clear objective, otherwise they “don’t know where to start.”

But the examination of injected shrimp is not complicated. Cui Chunming, deputy director of the Tianjin Sanitation Supervision Department, told Beijing News, ‘There is no need for examination, because you can tell whether there has been an injection with your own eyes. Regardless of what’s being injected, it is not allowed, and the adulterating is illegal behavior.”

Several shrimp sellers in different places in China told Chinese media that they got the gel-injected shrimp from the wholesaler. In a 2012 case, a shrimp seller said, “This kind of shrimp has already been here for a long time. Beginning five years ago they came like this from the wholesalers.”

A rough picture emerges in which greed trumps morality, and the state is ineffective or worse in responding.

Wholesalers or retailers see the chance to increase their profits by injecting shrimp, and are willing to cheat—and possibly endanger the health of consumers—in this way. Even if retailers aren’t involved in injecting shrimp, they know when they are receiving adulterated goods from the wholesalers. But they accept them and pass them onto their customers. China’s food regulators are unable or unwilling to put a stop to all this.

U.S. Options

Patty Lovera, assistant director of the U.S.-based Food & Water Watch, thinks American customers should be concerned about shrimp from China, “We do know that they are struggling with food safety regulation in China, and there are constant stories written about food safety problems,” said Lovera in a phone interview. “Our FDA, they have an office in China, but they don’t get out very much to do a lot of inspections. A couple hundred inspections a year is nothing compared to how many food operations are out there.”

Lovera also mentioned the FDA’s lack of manpower for inspecting food imports. “They don’t have very much inspection at the border here when it’s coming in. They will get less than 2 percent of what’s coming in, so importers will take their chances sometimes. … They might try to send in something that’s not okay.”

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