29 May 2019
Trace Elements – The Future of Shrimp Traceability?
Written by Zach Stein

With new laws in shrimp consuming countries like SIMP coming into place, governments are putting increased pressure on importers and retailers to trace their shrimp from hatchery to grocery store freezer.

Unfortunately with a commodity like shrimp and the highly fragmented nature of the supply chain, it historically has been highly difficult to trace the true origin of shrimp. This is especially true as containers of frozen, processed shrimp can be sent to “safe” ports before transporting them overseas that are less likely to receive scrutiny from customs agents at their final destinations.

So in this complicated market, how can importers and retailers comply with the law and ensure the validity of what is in a shrimp container is accurate – maybe trace elements?

Why is Shrimp Traceability Important to A Sustainable Shrimp Industry

Traceability is an issue that is plaguing all of seafood, not just farm-raised shrimp. Consumers increasingly want to have confidence that the piece of fish they paid for is actually that species of fish and want to know their shrimp is coming from exactly where it was said to be sourced from.

In shrimp, the main concerns are around the use of antibiotics and sustainable and equitable farming practices. Slavery is still an issue on shrimp farms and while antibiotics use is dropping, due to the highly fragmented nature of the market with processors working with hundreds or thousands of small farmers and a potential string of middle-men, it is highly difficutl to ensure product quality.

While some processing companies have opted to in-house their own production of shrimp to ensure traceability, the issues around shrimp traceability remain at the forefront of the industry in terms of problems to solve. Not only does it lead to bad PR that can reduce demand and thus global prices, but it results in increasingly large numbers of containers being turned away in customs or simply discarded. This is both a financial and environmental waste as one of the biggest sources of carbon from the agricultural industry is wasted food.

What are Trace Elements?

Trace elements are certain minerals and metals that exist in all living things. With recent advances, scientists can now take tissue samples of plants and animals and analyze their trace element contents.

Such analysis then allows them to start creating a map of associations. As more and more samples are collected, patterns begin to emerge and these patterns are often associated with specific geographies. This is because each geography can have an individual fingerprint whether it be the soil content or bacteria in the water or the yeasts present in the air. By mapping all of these together, one can begin creating a model to test new tissues against. Once that model is built, scientists can analyze the trace elements in new samples and match them to those with similar patterns and get a strong indication of where the tissue came from.

How are Trace Elements Being Used in Shrimp Traceability

While trace elements are still in their infancy when it comes to traceability in shrimp, scientists are already building and updating models. By collecting thousands of samples of shrimp, they have enough tissue to be able to predict with fairly high accuracy where a container of shrimp actually originated and where it was grown.

It still has work to be done, but in combination with greater supply chain transparency and data-based tools, such as blockchain, trace element testing can be a crucial link in the chain to ensure that supply chains in shrimp are trustworthy.

Conclusion

As we all push towards a more sustainable shrimp future technologies like trace element testing will become an increasingly important tool in ensuring the public’s trust that the shrimp they are eating is from the region it was advertised and was raised using humane, sustainable methods.