Spare a thought for workers who shelled prawns for your cocktail

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 Asso-ciated Press (AP) 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 US supermarket and restaurant chains, from Walmart to the Capital Grille.

While horrifying, those revelations are sadly familiar.

Investigations of slave labour in  Thailand's seafood industry go back at least to 2013. According to one report, nearly 60 per cent of surveyed Thai shrimp workers had witnessed a murder in their workplace. In May, embarrassed and under US 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 far more than arresting a few bad actors. Supermarkets, restaurants and wholesalers in the United States 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 practised 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. It 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 which 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 US seafood industry already practises varying levels of traceability within the domestic seafood supply chain. But 90 per cent of US 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 per cent of the global seafood supply is illegally caught.

Though the US has strict rules on imported seafood and how it's documented, only about 2 per cent of seafood imports are ever inspected. That has dinner-table consequences: A 2013 study of more than 1,200 seafood samples taken nationwide between 2010 and 2012 found a third of them had been mislabelled. (To take one example, only seven of the 120 samples of red snapper bought were actually red snapper.)

According to the AP investigation, some of that mislabelling takes place in the supply chains of large Thai seafood companies. Recently, 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 buying shrimp from an "unregistered pre-processor", but insisted 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, it needs to ask and then publicise the answer.

Major US 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, US 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.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 24, 2015, with the headline 'Spare a thought for workers who shelled prawns for your cocktail'. Print Edition | Subscribe