Shrimp Slavery – The True Supply Chain Costs of Cheap Seafood

Last week I touched on the human and labor costs associated with cheap seafood, based on a scandal that’s broken out over slave labor in the shrimp supply chain. Reporting for The Guardian, the author of the article breaking the news suggested that tackling the problem “is about developing the systems to implement regular checks on suppliers and adopting a scrupulous approach to inspections and audits.” Further, organizations should take approaches such as “ensuring confidential interviews are carried out with workers, and preventing situations in which companies are able to cover up abuses as soon as they know an inspection is imminent.”

All of these are fair suggestions (we cover a range of recommendations on the topic in a previous Spend Matters PRO research brief on tools and approaches to avoid sweatshop scandals). But more than simply conducting audits of physical locations that include interviewing workers, it becomes important to creating a systematic means of gathering and collecting information – and making sure that resultant actions have teeth (e.g., firing suppliers that do not show measurable improvement).

The article concludes by noting that “the issue essentially boils down to organisational will. If this were a consumer safety issue, you can be sure that the necessary action would be taken quickly and efficiently; I challenge anyone in the retail markets in Europe or the US to deny this fact.”

True, perhaps, but we could argue consumers are getting precisely what they want (and don’t want to know about under the surface). Inexpensive prices for Asian seafood, among other regions, have created a bifurcated seafood market. In the US, for example, as a colleague recently pointed out to me, a consumer in might have the choice of four types of cod at the same store – the cheapest (farmed), a middle tier product (sustainably farmed and certified), a “wild product,” and the most expensive, a sustainably caught wild product. The price of the fresh and sustainable wild product can be three times as high as that of the cheapest frozen variety.

Now that’s food for thought. Perhaps we should let consumers vote with their wallets. After all, those consumers who think $2-3 per pound of shrimp is a reasonable amount to pay for a sustainably sourced product should wise up to the realities of true costs in the supply chain – and either take in stride that they could be eating a “slave-based” product at a bargain basement price or spend a few more bucks to pay for a more humane alternative.

Or of course they could go catch the shrimp themselves.

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