April 24, 2024

Indian company sold contaminated shrimp to US supermarkets, says ‘whistleblower’

This story is the result of an NBC News investigation in collaboration with The Outlaw Ocean Project, a nonprofit journalism organization.

Joshua Farinella had been working in the fishing industry for eight years when he was offered an exotic job that was too lucrative to pass up: running a shrimp factory in southern India. The salary: $300,000, more than double what he previously earned.

“I packed two suitcases and moved 8,000 miles away,” says Farinella, 45, of Pittston, Pennsylvania. “It had to be life-changing.”

But just a few months after taking the job in October 2023, Farinella said he became deeply disturbed by what he saw.

Joshua Farinella.
Joshua Farinella.NBC News

His company, Choice Canning, supplies shrimp to major U.S. supermarket chains, including Walmart, Aldi, ShopRite and HEB. The company touts its “state-of-the-art processing plant” and “commitment to international quality standards.”

But Farinella said he soon discovered that Choice Canning was operating unsanitary off-site “peeling sheds” and routinely approving the export of shrimp contaminated with antibiotics, in violation of U.S. food safety laws.

The company’s treatment of employees was equally shocking to Farinella, he said. Migrant workers rarely had a day off, slept in overcrowded, bedbug-infested dormitories and were not allowed to leave the walled industrial estate in Amalapuram, Farinella said. They were mostly women who were often recruited from the poorest parts of the country.

Farinella then left the track approximately four months, but not before recording conversations with upper management and video footage of conditions at the plant and at an off-site peeling facility.

“Consumers need to understand that they have purchased a contaminated product made by people who do not have the luxury of going home,” said Farinella, who has filed a whistleblower complaint with the Food and Drug Administration and other regulators have detailed his allegations described and shared it with members of Congress.

A mattress that appears to be covered in bed bugs.
A mattress that appears to be covered in bed bugs.Thanks to Joshua Farinella

US lawmakers are investigating Farinella’s allegations, which underscore long-held concerns about the global farmed shrimp industry and more recent findings about India’s in particular.

In a letter dated March 18, leading Democrats on the House Committee on Natural Resources requested documents and recordings from Farinella in response to his complaint. The letter refers to the commission’s “continued efforts to reduce human rights violations and increase transparency in the seafood supply chain.” (Farinella’s lawyers said they provided all relevant data in response.)

After the nonprofit news organization The Outlaw Ocean Project published its investigation into Farinella’s claims, other lawmakers called on the Biden administration to take action to protect American consumers.

“Damning evidence from an industry figure has revealed significant concerns about serious food safety issues and labor violations at an Indian shrimp processing plant,” wrote Reps. Mary Peltola, D-Alaska, and Reps. Garret Graves, R-La. a March 22 letter to President Joe Biden. “The whistleblower alleged that the company deliberately exported shrimp contaminated with antibiotics and engaged in forced labor.”

Choice Canning's shrimp processing plant in Amalapuram, India.
Choice Canning’s shrimp processing plant in Amalapuram, India.Ben Blankenship / The Outlaw Ocean Project

Lawyers for Choice Canning categorically denied any wrongdoing, including the allegations of abusive labor practices and the illegal use of antibiotics.

“The allegations made against our company are false and baseless,” a spokesperson for Choice Canning Company Inc. said. in a statement.

“Throughout our history, we have built an impeccable reputation with regulators and continue to exceed industry standards to ensure our products meet all certifications. Throughout our history, we have devoted significant resources to developing and adhering to comprehensive audit processes and protocols, as well as employee wellness programs.”

The company also cast Farinella as a disgruntled former employee who should not be believed due to his criminal past.

Farinella was convicted of a series of crimes and crimes between 1999 and 2014 – a period during which he said he struggled with depression and substance abuse. The crimes include car theft, burglary and identity theft.

“It’s been more than 10 years,” said Farinella, who is married and has two stepchildren, aged 17 and 24. “That’s not who I am at this point in my life.”

Walmart and Aldi said in statements to NBC News that they were investigating Farinella’s claims and expect their suppliers to treat workers fairly. Wakefern Food Corporation, owner of ShopRite, referred to Choice Canning’s response to the allegations. HEB did not respond to requests for comment.

“We expect suppliers to operate safe workplaces, take responsibility for the well-being of their employees, adhere to our Forced Labor Prevention Principles, and protect the integrity of the food we sell by complying with all FDA regulatory requirements and Walmart food safety standards. a Walmart spokesperson said.

A uniformed security guard stationed at a Choice Canning shrimp processing plant in Amalapuram, India.
A uniformed security guard stationed at a Choice Canning shrimp processing plant in Amalapuram, India, in February.Ben Blankenship / The Outlaw Ocean Project

A troubled sector

Americans love shrimp. It is the most consumed seafood in the US, and nearly 40% of imported seafood now comes from India – more than any other country.

Thailand has long been the largest exporter of shrimp to the US. But the sector was rocked by high numbers of shrimp diseases and repeated reports of forced labor. With Thailand’s shrimp trade in crisis, India has ramped up production to meet global demand.

A new report from the Corporate Accountability Lab (CAL), a Chicago-based advocacy group, suggests that Farinella’s allegations are part of a larger, systemic problem in India’s shrimp industry.

The report was based on interviews with more than 150 workers and others in the country’s shrimp industry.

The CAL report did not investigate Choice Canning, but found that shrimp operations in India often rely on forced labor and “dangerous and unlawful working conditions” to “meet demand for ever lower prices.”

“In the manufacturing sector, workers live in overcrowded and often unsanitary conditions, under the careful supervision of company guards,” the report said. “They are rarely allowed to leave the building.”

A room where Farinella said he found migrant workers sleeping on mattresses on the floor, many without pillows or bedding.
A room where Farinella said he found migrant workers sleeping on mattresses on the floor, many without pillows or bedding.Thanks to Joshua Farinella

CAL also found that debt bondage – which prevents workers from leaving their jobs before paying off a loan – is common. And shrimp production also causes serious environmental damage, the report said.

The report did not focus on food safety, but did note that India’s shrimp industry focuses on two national markets “with less regulation and less oversight of imported shrimp: China and the US.”

While the European Union samples 50% of India’s shrimp for traces of antibiotics, the US inspected just over 1% of shrimp imports in 2023, the FDA said. According to publicly available FDA import denial data, the FDA denied 51 shipments of shrimp last year due to antibiotics, and more than 70% of them involved shrimp exported from India.

“The minimal testing, combined with the enormous volume of shrimp entering the United States, means there is a high risk of shrimp containing traces of antibiotics entering the U.S. market from India,” the Corporate Accountability Lab report said.

Shrimp farmers sometimes use antibiotics to prevent the spread of disease, but in many countries the practice is heavily restricted, in part because eating contaminated shrimp can lead to increased resistance to antibiotics.

Farinella said his factory shipped antibiotic-contaminated shrimp “almost half a dozen times” during the time he was there. Business leaders even had a code name for it, he said: Oscar.

In a WhatsApp text exchange cited in the whistleblower complaint and viewed by NBC News, Farinella wrote to an executive about a shipment of cooked shrimp for a U.S. grocer that he said tested positive for antibiotics. “Please use the word Oscar lol,” the director wrote.

“Oscar was the word when no one wanted to see a message saying, ‘Hey, this shrimp is contaminated,’” Farinella said.

Choice Canning disputed Farinella’s characterization, saying the term Oscar is used to describe shrimp that tested positive for antibiotics on an initial inspection but were negative on a subsequent, more precise inspection, known as LCMSMS.

“Cleared OSCAR products can only be exported after LCMSMS reports are negative and additional time is required to obtain senior management approval for final shipments,” according to a Choice Canning policy document.

Farinella said the processing plant itself was inspected by auditors from Best Aquaculture Practices, a group that ensures seafood is sourced responsibly and sustainably, but that a significant amount of the work was actually done in external peeling sheds with substandard standards in the area of hygiene and sanitation.

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