Investigations have exposed abuses in the Thai shrimp industry.

Photographer: Pornchai Kittiwongsakul/AFP/Getty Images

Fighting Slavery, One Supplier at a Time

Adam Minter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is the author of “Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade.”
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As you dig into your shrimp cocktail this holiday season, spare a thought for the men and women who peeled those tiny crustaceans. According to a six-month Associated Press investigation, there’s a chance the workers were modern-day slaves in Thailand, exploited by shadowy suppliers who have been linked to some of the biggest U.S. supermarket and restaurant chains, from Wal-Mart to the Capital Grille.

While horrifying, those revelations are sadly familiar. In-depth investigations of slave labor in Thailand’s seafood industry date back at least to 2013. According to one report, nearly 60 percent of surveyed Thai shrimp workers had witnessed a murder in their workplace. In May, embarrassed and under U.S. and EU pressure to clean up the abuses, Thailand’s prime minister described the problem of slavery in his country’s seafood industry as “severe.”

Eliminating the practice is going to require much more than arresting a few bad actors. U.S. supermarkets, restaurants and wholesalers are going to have to demand that the Thai seafood industry open its supply chains, from the fishing boat to the canning line, to outside scrutiny.

The idea isn’t as far-fetched as it might sound. “Traceability,” as the concept is called, is practiced in industries ranging from palm oil to fashion. For example, outdoor-clothing manufacturer Patagonia recently pledged full transparency in the production of the down filling that goes into its coats. The company now collates and audits paperwork tracing the product’s journey from farm to factory.

In other industries, traceability occurs in real time, with each step on the supply chain recorded and tracked with bar codes. For companies who do it well, the benefits transcend corporate social responsibility. Knowing supply chains in-depth means companies can better control quality, costs and product safety.

The U.S. seafood industry already practices varying levels of traceability within the domestic seafood supply chain. But 90 percent of U.S. seafood is imported (Thailand is the third-largest supplier), and the global seafood industry is rife with fraud. According to one study, as much as 31 percent of the global seafood supply is illegally caught.

Though the U.S. has strict regulations on imported seafood and how it’s documented, only an estimated 2 percent of seafood imports are ever inspected. That has dinner-table consequences: a 2013 study of more than 1,200 seafood samples taken nationwide in the U.S. between 2010 and 2012 found that a third of them had been mislabeled. (To take one example, only seven of the 120 samples of red snapper purchased nationwide were actually red snapper.)

According to the AP investigation, some of that mislabeling takes place in the supply chains of large Thai seafood companies. Last week, for example, Whole Foods, which maintains a strict seafood traceability standard, was accused of selling slave-peeled shrimp from Thai Union, one of the world’s biggest seafood exporters. In response, Thai Union admitted it had bought shrimp from an “unregistered pre-processor,” but insisted that the slave-peeled shrimp had never made its way to Whole Foods; where it went wasn’t revealed. If Whole Foods is serious about maintaining its relationship with Thai Union, the company needs to ask and then publicize the answer.

Major U.S. seafood buyers can take additional steps as well. The first priority would be to unite behind longstanding efforts to create a Global Record of fishing vessels, demanding that their suppliers (and their suppliers, too) join. Though most Thai shrimp isn’t caught at sea, so-called “by catch” used as feed for shrimp farms is. That’s the bottom of the supply chain; documenting it will help to illuminate where shrimp is grown, peeled and packaged, as well as who’s doing the work.

At the same time, U.S. seafood importers need to make funding for certification, training and equipment available to the small businesses that form the seafood industry’s bottom rungs in Thailand and other countries -- including fish farms and shrimp sheds that want to participate in the global supply chain.

The good news is that major companies are already demanding or working on increasing traceability in their seafood supply chains. The more companies that join them, the more pressure it places on Thailand’s seafood industry to adopt best practices for all of its customers. Those changes will inevitably result in more expensive shrimp cocktails. But that’s a small price to pay for knowing that your seafood isn’t contributing to the scourge of modern-day slavery.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Adam Minter at aminter@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Nisid Hajari at nhajari@bloomberg.net