Asian shrimp: The murky world of the supply chain

A major newspaper investigation this month revealed some frightening truths about the often murky world of the mass production supply chain. But are stories like this just a symptom of our growing disassociation with the provenance of our food? John Turenne FCSI talks to Foodservice Consultant

What we know

A major investigation by The Guardian in the UK revealed that CP foods, the worlds largest prawn farmer, has bought fishmeal from Thai suppliers that own, operate or buy from fishing boats manned by slaves.

The Guardian traced the journey from fishmeal to shrimp farm to the shelves of some of the world’s leading supermarket chains, including Walmart, Carrefour, Costco and Tesco.

The paper reported that the slaves, who are used as labour for a fundamental part of the shrimp farming process, are beaten, chained and tortured. Some are held at sea for years on end, some who have escaped reported to the paper that they had been offered methamphetamines by their captors.

The use of forced human labour in the shrimp production chain was not unknown. The Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), a UK based charity, has been running a campaign against the practice that dates back as early as 2011.

The abuse is widespread. According to EJF, of an industry that employs around 65,000 people, of whom 90% are migrant workers, “slavery and exploitation touch almost every corner of the largely export-driven sector”.

Yet, the force of The Guardian investigation has encouraged some action.

The response

The Guardian’s story was picked up by news agencies around the world. USA today ran a story on the subject that day and CBS news a day later. It seems, with the pressure of media attention, retailers and suppliers had to take note.

On the 12 June,  French retailer Carrefour announced its decision to stop all direct and indirect purchases from CP foods, “until light has been shed on the matter”.

Then, one week later, on the 19t June, the chairman of CP Foods condemned slavery in a statement, stating the firm’s “commitment to doing the right things and behaving responsibly”.

“Under my instruction,” he said, “CPF has ceased buying fishmeal from suppliers suspected of obtaining bycatch from fishing boats involved in human trafficking or slavery. CPF will involve independent NGOs to routinely audit the legality of the sources of our suppliers.”

Tesco took a different approach, yet still took the opportunity to speak out against the nature of the Thai fishing industry. Kevin Grace, the firm’s group commercial director, said that it would not be changing suppliers, and argued that the best way to improve the situation is to continue to “use the market”.

“We are now working with our suppliers to ensure they move to 100% certified fishmeal as quickly as possible.”

“But we will also strengthen our efforts with international bodies and NGOs and any retailers or organisations, to bring that same combined pressure to bear that yielded results in Bangladesh and is changing that whole industry for the better. We will not walk away from a problem that is too appalling to ignore,” he said.

“Education and legislation” 

For John Turenne FCSI and sustainable food expert, this issue is part of a lack of understanding of food provenance and the supply chain that is reflected around the world.

“We are just talking about the social ramifications of where our food comes from,” he says.

He defines four pillars of sustainable food. “Without understanding the environmental, economic, health and social ramifications of where our food comes from, we’re messing things up.”

The solution, says Turenne, is not a simple one. “I used to think that all you had to do was tell people,” he says. “I thought if you told people to stop buying Asian Shrimp because they might be supporting slave labour, they would.”

“But Asian prawns are cheap, and these people don’t have a lot of money to spend.”

To effect change and to stop people buying encourage better understanding of provenence, he says, there has to be a general change in attitude, brought about by a combination of “education and legislation”.

“We all have responsibility,” he says. “We’re reading about it every day. We’re messing things up. Whether it’s our bodies or our planet or other people’s lives.”

Ellie Clayton






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