Indian company sold contaminated shrimp to US grocery stores, says ‘whistleblower’ | Trending Viral hub


This story is the product of an investigation by NBC News 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 received an exotic job offer too lucrative to pass up: managing a shrimp factory in southern India. His salary: $300,000, more than double what he previously earned.

“I packed two suitcases and moved 8,000 miles away,” said Farinella, 45, of Pittston, Pennsylvania. “She was supposed to be life-changing.”

But just months after arriving on the job in October 2023, Farinella said he was deeply disturbed by what he was witnessing.

Joshua Farinella.
Joshua Farinella.NBC News

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

But Farinella said he soon discovered that Choice Canning operated unsanitary “peeling sheds” and routinely approved the export of shrimp contaminated with antibiotics, in violation of U.S. food safety law.

The company’s treatment of workers was equally shocking to Farinella, he said. The migrant workers rarely had a day off, slept in overcrowded, bedbug-infested dormitories, and were unable to leave the company’s walled compound in Amalapuram, according to Farinella. They were mostly women who were often recruited from the poorest sectors of the country.

Farinella left the job after approximately four months, but not before recording conversations with senior managers and capturing video footage of conditions in the plant and at an off-site peeling facility.

“Consumers need to understand that they have been purchasing a contaminated product that was made by people who cannot afford to return home,” said Farinella, who filed a complaint with the Food and Drug Administration and other regulators detailing his allegations and He has shared them with members of Congress.

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

U.S. lawmakers are investigating Farinella’s allegations, which underscore long-standing concerns about the global farmed shrimp industry and most recent findings about India in particular.

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

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

“Damning evidence from someone in the industry has revealed strong concerns about serious food safety issues and labor violations at an Indian shrimp processing plant,” they wrote in a March 22 letter to President Joe Biden. “The complainant alleged that the company was deliberately exporting shrimp contaminated with antibiotics and engaging in forced labor practices.”

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

Choice Canning’s lawyers categorically denied any wrongdoing, including allegations of abusive labor practices and illegal use of antibiotics.

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

“Throughout our history, we have maintained an impeccable track record with regulators and continue to exceed industry standards to ensure our products meet all certifications. “Throughout our history, we have dedicated significant resources to the development and compliance of comprehensive audit processes and protocols, as well as employee wellness programs.”

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

Farinella was convicted of a series of felonies and misdemeanors between 1999 and 2014, a period when he says he was struggling with depression and substance abuse. The crimes included grand theft auto, burglary and identity theft.

“It was more than 10 years ago,” said Farinella, who is married and has two stepchildren, ages 17 and 24. “I’m not like that at this point in my life.”

Walmart and Aldi said in statements to NBC News that they were investigating Farinella’s claims and expected their suppliers to treat workers fairly. Wakefern Food Corporation, which owns ShopRite, addressed 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 workers, comply with our principles of prevention of forced labor 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

An industry in trouble

Americans love shrimp. It is the most consumed type of seafood in the United States, and nearly 40% of imported crustaceans now come from India, more than any other country.

Thailand was long the largest exporter of shrimp to the United States, but the industry was rocked by high rates of shrimp diseases and repeated reports of forced labor. With Thailand’s shrimp business in crisis, India increased production to meet global demand.

TO new report by the Corporate Accountability Lab (CAL), a Chicago-based advocacy group, suggests that Farinella’s allegations are part of a broader systemic problem in the Indian shrimp industry.

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

The CAL report did not investigate Choice Canning, but found that Indian shrimp operations often rely on forced labor and “dangerous and abusive working conditions” to “meet demands for increasingly lower prices.”

“In the processing sector, workers live in overcrowded and often unhealthy conditions, under the careful surveillance of company guards,” the report reads. “They are rarely allowed to leave the premises.”

A room where Farinella said he found migrant workers sleeping on mattresses thrown on the floor, many of them without pillows or bedding.
A room where Farinella said he found migrant workers sleeping on mattresses thrown on the floor, many of them without pillows or bedding.Courtesy of Joshua Farinella

CAL also found that debt bondage (which prevents workers from leaving a job until they have repaid a loan) is common. And shrimp production is also causing serious environmental damage, according to the report.

The report did not focus on food safety, but did note that the Indian shrimp industry is focused on two domestic markets “with fewer regulations and less monitoring of imported shrimp: China and the United States.”

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

“Minimal testing combined with the enormous amount of shrimp entering the United States means there is a high risk of shrimp with traces of antibiotics entering the US market from India,” the Corporate Accountability Lab report says.

Shrimp farmers sometimes use antibiotics to reduce the spread of disease, but the practice is severely restricted in many countries, in part because eating contaminated shrimp could increase antibiotic resistance.

Farinella said his plant shipped shrimp contaminated with antibiotics “almost half a dozen times” during his time there. The company’s directors even gave him a code name: Oscar.

In a WhatsApp text message exchange cited in the whistleblower’s complaint and seen 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 hahaha,” the executive wrote.

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

Choice Canning disputed the characterization of Farinella, saying the term Oscar is used to denote shrimp that tested positive for antibiotics in an initial inspection, but negative in a later, more precise inspection, known as LCMSMS.

“Authorized OSCAR products can only be exported after LCMSMS reports are negative and additional time is required for senior management approval for final shipments,” reads a policy document provided by Choice Canning.

Farinella said the processing plant was inspected by auditors from Best Aquaculture Practices, a group that ensures seafood is sourced responsibly and sustainably, but that a substantial portion of the work was actually done in outside peeling sheds with poor hygiene and sanitation standards.

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