Recently, I was made aware of an op-ed written by John Williams of the Southern Shrimp Alliance (SSA). The piece was part of an apparent series entitled Know Your Supplier: Forced Labor in the Thai Shrimp Processing Industry. The editorial closed by stating, “The strongest demand we can make is to know where the shrimp originates at the time of purchase and if it’s from Thailand, make your outrage known by refusing to purchase this product…”
In terms of disclosure, Mazzetta Company purchases farmed shrimp from Thailand.
We have been working with the same Thai suppliers for a number of years and are extremely proud of the people that produce our products. Even so, we recently stopped doing business with one of our Thai suppliers after our investigation revealed their use of unregulated peeling sheds. This supplier has since corrected their issues and we have resumed our business with them.
Our layered audit processes, including an inspector positioned in Bangkok, Thailand, ensures our products are free from the labor abuses that have affected a number of different industries in emerging countries throughout Asia. In fact, Mazzetta Company was recently recognized by the U.S. State Department for our efforts to combat labor abuses in the global seafood supply chain.
I mention this to illustrate how irresponsible it is for the SSA to overgeneralize in this manner, especially on social issues that are extremely important to many U.S. importing companies. Moreover, I am not quite sure when the Southern Shrimp Alliance became the mouthpiece for labor conditions, food safety, or duty collection at Customs and Border Protection. They might do well to instead put more energy into their own products and less into demonizing imported farmed shrimp.
Domestic shrimp producers continue to feel a need to bash imports in the media and with policy-makers. Likewise, they have pursued any number of trade cases against imported shrimp in an effort to drive the price up. It is not only a tired approach, but I question how much money the SSA wastes on this flawed strategy that might otherwise have been directed to product improvement and marketing.
In my opinion, the Louisiana Seafood Promotion & Marketing Board exemplifies a domestic group that really “gets it”. They promote their own domestic wild product without feeling the need to demonize others in the process. They understand that domestic wild shrimp cannot survive in the commodity market with farmed product, so they focus on the unique characteristics of Gulf shrimp; not what is wrong with every other product in the marketplace. This approach bolsters consumer confidence in seafood, which is good for both wild and farmed producers, and has also built goodwill throughout the industry in general.
From the perspective of shrimp importers, I think it is fair to say we have collectively held our tongues regarding the challenges that have plagued the wild shrimp industry for many years. There is nothing to be gained by importers publicly bashing domestic producers because we do not view wild shrimp suppliers as competitors. Not only is the cost structure of wild-caught product different, but wild-caught shrimp cannot compete in terms of volume, consistency, and year-round availability. So importers allow groups like the SSA to talk sanctimoniously about the challenges faced by farmed producers and do not point out the corresponding issues wild producers confront.
Importers could change their position and begin to respond publicly, and there would be plenty of issues to tackle.
For example, following the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, where 16,000 miles of coastline were contaminated throughout TX, AL, MS, LA and FL, farmed shrimp producers did not employ any scare tactics to improve their market share. Even today, more than two years later, all of the polling on this issue shows consumers remain concerned about the spill; yet farmed shrimp producers do not seek to become “convenient experts” on the food safety implications of the tens of millions of gallons of oil and dispersants released into the Gulf.
Likewise, farmed shrimp producers did not publicly challenge domestic fishermen when they were caught refusing to use Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs), or when many fastened them shut in violation of the Endangered Species Act.
The inshore Gulf skimmer fishery is not even required to use TEDs, which outrages many environmental groups, but shrimp importers do not make a public outcry about the environmental impacts of wild shrimping. Nor do importers pressure policy-makers by lobbying to have regulations changed in order to force additional costs on shrimpers.
How about the number of indictments that have occurred over the years when domestic wild shrimp producers have been caught selling foreign farm-raised shrimp falsely as U.S. wild caught shrimp? Not exactly the finest hour for the “Wild American” campaign, but seafood importers let it go without creating an uproar.
There have been no media campaigns about issues like labor violations, undocumented workers, and dockside price-fixing in the domestic wild shrimp industry.
What the SSA fails to understand is that most shrimp importers are not the enemy, but rather they are seafood companies that travel throughout the world to bring the best seafood on the planet to market. In some cases this is possible without leaving the United States, but in some cases it is not.
For many years, Mazzetta Company considered becoming involved in the domestic wild shrimp industry. We spent considerable time in the Gulf trying to convince fishermen to produce the product according to our specifications and trying to find a processing facility that met the standards we require.
For the most part, the fishermen simply refused to produce a product any differently than they have for generations; even for more money.
Offering higher dock prices threatens the dockside price-fixing scheme that exists throughout the Gulf, which can result in very uncomfortable confrontations to say the least. I can also tell you that processing facilities in the Gulf do not even come close to the food safety, cleanliness, and professionalism exhibited by the foreign processors with whom we work.
Not only are most domestic processing facilities structurally poor, but I have seen dogs running through facilities, cigarette butts on the floor, and even witnessed cock fighting occurring outside one facility. Not exactly the kinds of places you would feel comfortable bringing customers to see. These are the images that come to mind every time I hear the SSA attempting to frighten consumers away from farm-raised shrimp using food safety.
Even still, farmed shrimp producers continue to look the other way for the good of the seafood industry as a whole. Farmed shrimp is not the enemy of wild caught shrimp, nor can it continue to be the scapegoat for the wild shrimp industry’s collective failures in the marketplace. It is time for the prolonged witch hunt the SSA has been conducting against farmed shrimp to come to an end.