A report published this week by the Associated Press has brought renewed scrutiny to the Thai seafood industry. An extensive investigation confirmed that much of the peeled shrimp that makes its way into the American, European and Asian markets is being processed in horrendous conditions by people who have essentially become modern-day slaves.
“We’ve seen interest come and go” in the notorious Thai fishing industry, said Steve Trent, founder and director of the London-based Environmental Justice Foundation. The 15-year-old nonprofit’s oceans campaign has helped document human rights abuses in Thailand and pushed for reform there, as well as action by American and European authorities.
Trent said media reports, European Union threats of action against Thailand and the U.S. State Department’s classification of Thailand as a country that does not meet minimum standards in preventing human trafficking have meant “people are becoming aware in a much more active way” of the kinds of problems raised in the AP investigation.
But how can you be active? Here’s what to think about when buying shrimp.
Know which brands and retailers are tainted by supply chains linked to labor abuses. The AP’s investigation covered many companies and stores in all 50 states.
Shrimp brands and companies found to be compromised: Cape Gourmet; Certifresh; Chef’s Net; Chicken of the Sea; Chico; CoCo; Darden (owner of Olive Garden Italian Kitchen, Longhorn Steakhouse, Bahama Breeze Island Grille, Seasons 52 Fresh Grill, The Capital Grille, Eddie V’s Prime Seafood and Yard House); Delicasea; Fancy Feast cat food; Farm Best; Fisherman’s Wharf; Winn-Dixie; Fishmarket; Great American; Great Atlantic; Great Catch; Harbor Banks; KPF; Market Basket; Master Catch; Neptune; Portico; Publix; Red Lobster; Royal Tiger; Royal White; Sea Best; Sea Queen; Stater Bros.; Supreme Choice; Tastee Choice; Wal-Mart; Waterfront Bistro; Wellness canned cat food; Whole Catch; Wholey; Xcellent.
Supermarkets chosen at random linked to the tainted supply chains: Acme Markets; Albertsons; Aldi; Bi-Lo; Carrs-Safeway; Cash Wise; Crest Foods; Cub Foods; D’Agostino Supermarket; Dan’s Supermarket; Dollar General; Edwards Food Giant; Family Dollar; Foodland; Fred Meyer; Giant Eagle; Harris-Teeter; H-E-B; Hy-Vee; Jerry’s Foods; Jewel-Osco; Jons International Marketplace; Kroger; Lowes Foods; Mariano’s; Market Basket; Marsh Supermarkets; Martin’s Super Markets; McDade’s Market; Pavilions; Petco; Piggly Wiggly; Price Chopper; Publix; Ralphs; Randall’s Food Market; Redner’s Warehouse Markets; Russ’s Market; Safeway; Save Mart; Schnucks; Shaws; ShopRite; Smart & Final; Sprouts Farmers Market; Stater Bros.; Stop & Shop; Sunshine Foods; Target; Van’s Thriftway; Vons; Wal-Mart; Whole Foods; Winn-Dixie.
Ask questions, demand answers. Trent suggests consumers ask three questions about shrimp they may be buying:
- Is it legal? As in, has it been caught where fishing is allowed while abiding by regulations regarding amounts and protected species?
- Is it sustainable? As in, is it fished or farmed in a way with minimal environmental impact? (See: Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch.)
- Is it ethical? As in, are workers being treated properly?
“Demand that your retailer give you a guarantee,” Trent said, or go elsewhere with your money. Companies should be conducting supply-chain audits to deliver transparency to shoppers. “This is where businesses have a real role to play,” he said. This way, they can “weed out the bad players and reward the good ones.”
Some have called for a boycott of fish and shrimp tied to supply chains in Thailand, but Trent isn’t sure that’s the answer. “I would say boycotts are a blunt instrument,” he said. “They’re easy to call for, but they all too often don’t deliver the result you want.” Which is why at the very least, you need to ask those questions.
Read labels. We know that shrimp from Thailand stands a good chance of being tainted by labor abuses. Fiona Lewis, co-owner of District Fishwife in Union Market, suggests looking for certification by the Aquaculture Stewardship Council, which has developed standards that take into account environmental and social conditions for marine farming. And Greenpeace, for example, has released a grocery store scorecard that takes into account whether retailers are involved in initiatives that are fighting human rights abuses.
Think domestic, too. According to the AP, 90 percent of shrimp in the United States is imported. But look in the right places, and you can find shrimp from Alaska, Texas, Louisiana, Florida and North Carolina for sale.
District Fishwife carries wild white Florida shrimp, and also just finished its seasonal sale of North Carolina shrimp. Co-owner Mark White of Captain White Seafood City on the Southwest Waterfront said he, too, stocks Carolina, Louisiana, Texas and Gulf shrimp.
At Black Restaurant Group, which includes the Blacksalt fish market and restaurant, chief fish buyer MJ Gimbar said the workhorse shrimp is a wild brown shrimp caught by fishermen in Texas. In season, he’ll also acquire fresh, never frozen shrimp from Florida and North Carolina.
Gimbar said thinks land-based aquaculture operations are the future of the industry, in part because of concerns about sustainability and labor issues. Such facilities have already been built in Maryland and Texas.
But don’t be deterred by the price. Yes, you’re probably going to pay more for domestic and/or responsibly raised shrimp.
“They cost more, but they taste better,” White said. “People come down here and complain about the price, but at least you know what you’re getting.” White said his salespeople are trained to explain the origins of the shrimp they sell, especially since it’s on display. He thinks that alone prompts shoppers to ask more questions than they would in a restaurant, where everything is already sourced, prepared and cooked. (“I rarely eat shrimp out,” Lewis admitted.)
Among the retailers we talked to, prices for domestic shrimp ranged from about $13 to $22 per pound. “They’re more expensive, and that’s why the big guys don’t want to carry them,” Gimbar said.
Shoppers are “paying a premium here because it’s a better product,” Gimbar said. “It’s a safer product.”