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Welcome to the costly consequences of a globalized food supply. Shrimp is the most popular seafood in the U.S., and we have both top-quality shrimp and excellent shrimpers in America’s coastal waters. Yet, unbeknownst to average consumers, 80 percent of the shrimp we buy is imported, mostly from Asian nations.
The rational of the import industry (including such big marketers as Wal-Mart) is that it is much cheaper to get the product from Asia. Of course, as shoppers know, shrimp is not cheap at the retail level. Middlemen are skimming off the savings.
But there are other costs that the industry doesn’t mention. Start with the excessive carbon footprint created by shipping these crustaceans in refrigerated containers 8,000 miles or more to our shores. Add in the devastating losses suffered by local fishing communities when the Wal-Marts abandon American producers.
Nor is our surge in imports a boon to Asian people. A recent report on workers in Southeast Asian shrimp processing factories uncovers child labor, sexual abuse, debt bondage, forced overtime, and nonpayment of wages, describing some of the factories as “little short of medieval.”
Then there’s what we consumers get in the way of quality. As seafood imports have soared, Washington has refused to update and adequately fund the government’s antiquated inspection system. Less than one percent of the tons of shrimp entering our ports are even looked at, and only about a fifth of those are inspected. When a batch is tested, one of the common findings is that it’s contaminated with veterinary drugs, including cancer-causing nitrofurans.
"The issue isn't just jobs. Even slaves had jobs. The issue is wages." --Jim Hightower