Retailers and consumers need to do their homework to make sure they’re not buying seafood tainted by modern-day slavery.
The Guardian recently revealed shocking results from a six-month investigation of the Thai fishing industry: Much of the shrimp sold in American and British supermarkets were produced with slave labor.
While shrimp sold to U.S. consumers hail from a number of different countries, including our own, Thailand is the world’s biggest shrimp supplier. Charoen Pokphand (CP) Foods, the corporation at the heart of this story, is Thailand’s largest shrimp farmer.
You may think slavery ended with Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War. But it’s still around.
Disturbingly, there are even cases of modern-day slavery found here in the United States — including farmworkers in Florida chained and locked inside of U-Haul style trucks, forced to work in the fields for as little as $20 per week. But here in the United States, when we catch cases like that, we send the perpetrators to jail.
Strangely enough, slavery only became illegal everywhere when Mauritania became the last country to outlaw it in 1981. Worse yet, Mauritania didn’t criminalize slavery until 2007.
In Thailand, slavery is illegal, plain and simple. It just happens anyway — a lot. The majority of the estimated half a million victims are migrants from poorer nations like Burma. They pay brokers to help them find jobs in Thailand, and instead the brokers sell them to fishing boats as slaves.
Once on the boats, the slaves are held without pay, forced to work up to 20 hours per day. Those who have escaped describe regular beatings, torture, and even witnessing the murder of other slaves.
But these boats don’t catch shrimp. They catch other fish and sea creatures — fish that aren’t economically valuable as human food. Then they sell their catch to factories that grind them into fishmeal.
From there, the fishmeal goes to CP Foods, which feeds it to farmed shrimp. It takes about 1.4 pounds of fishmeal to produce one pound of shrimp.
The shrimp, by the way, are often farmed in unspeakably disgusting and environmentally harmful conditions. As if slavery alone isn’t enough of a reason to avoid imported farmed shrimp.
From CP Foods, the shrimp makes its way to major American retailers, like Walmart and Costco.
Shrimp is America’s No. 1 seafood. In fact, we eat far more shrimp than our other two favorites, tuna and salmon. Perhaps one reason we eat so much shrimp is because it’s not just tasty, it’s cheap.
Now you know why it’s so cheap.
For consumers, cleaning up our shrimp act doesn’t have to mean giving up shrimp entirely — but it does mean doing a bit of homework before dipping that next shrimp into the cocktail sauce. The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program provides several recommendations for sustainable and ethical shrimp choices.
On a larger level, retailers and even the government can take action. Walmart, Costco, and their competitors buy shrimp from CP Foods because it is cheap. But they don’t have to.
Surely their customers would understand if they took a stand and said, “Sorry, we’re no longer sourcing farmed shrimp from Thailand until that country can end its widespread problem with slavery. We apologize if our prices go up slightly in order to bring you a slavery-free product.”
Costco told The Guardian it would require its suppliers “to take corrective action to police their feedstock sources.” But when will that occur, and how thorough will it be?
Costco’s best move would be to switch from Thai farmed shrimp suppliers until they change their ways. Better yet, the company could stop selling any shrimp produced via the disgusting seafood farming practices often used abroad.
OtherWords columnist Jill Richardson is the author of Recipe for America: Why Our Food System Is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It www.OtherWords.org.