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Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Tesco Says "Every Retailer" of Thai Prawns Is "Likely" Implicated in the Slave Trade

Posted by on Tue, Jun 24, 2014 at 2:05 PM

Thai prawns for sale at a Seattle QFC.
  • bk
  • Thai prawns for sale at a Seattle QFC.
I still haven't heard back from Safeway, Kroger (Fred Meyer and QFC), or Uwajimaya in response to the Guardian series on slavery in the Thai prawn industry. (For those who missed it: A Guardian investigation revealed modern-day slavery—not bad wages and bad conditions, but people bought and sold, and forced to work for no pay under threat of murder—on boats that catch fish for the meal fed to farmed prawns. So I started calling grocery stores and asking what they know about where their Thai prawns come from. As I said, no response yet.)

UK government ministers are launching initiatives to try and curb the practice, though Baroness Warsi of the Foreign Office admitted that the ongoing political crisis in Thailand (which is now being governed by the military) makes its influence "limited" in the country. The US state department downgraded Thailand to the bottom level—"tier three"—among countries with human-trafficking problems. But that ranking doesn't automatically trigger any penalties.

Whole Foods recently joined the supermarket chains Carrefour (France) and ICA (Norway) in pulling the plug on buying from CP Foods, a Thai agribusiness giant heavily implicated in sourcing its fishmeal from unregulated Thai fleets that use slave labor.

Costco, Walmart, and Tesco, in the other hand, announced they would continue to work in the Thai prawn business, and specifically with CP foods. As a Costco spokesperson explained (vaguely) to the IntraFish industry newsletter: "We are committed to working with our suppliers of Thai shrimp to require them to take corrective action to police their feedstock sources with respect to poor labor practices."

I've left messages at Costco asking what, specifically, the company plans to do to fight slavery among its suppliers but have not heard back yet. I'm very curious to know. CP Foods (and specially its fishmeal mills) has been audited and vetted by third-party analysts as certified for environmental and social sustainability. If they managed to slip slavery past that radar, what the hell does Costco think it can do—never mind how much money it's willing to throw at that project—to stop it?

The Whole Foods explanation for why they've pulled the plug on CP Foods, articulated in an industry newsletter, sounds a little more decisive:

Whole Foods Market takes a zero tolerance approach to human rights violations anywhere in our supply chain, and our suppliers sign a contract to uphold that standard... We have suspended our business with CP Food Products until they are able to provide us with substantiation that they have properly addressed the issue of human rights violations in their supply chain.

But a statement to the Guardian from the Tesco supermarket chain—arguing that it would be better to work with CP Foods than "cut and run for short-term pr relief"—admitted the depth of the problem:

Fishmeal use is standard in prawn farming, and some fish within it originates from the same, largely unregulated Thai fleet. Every retailer that sources farmed prawns from Thailand must now consider it likely that slavery exists in its supply chain.

You heard it directly from Tesco: If you're buying and selling Thai prawns, you're implicated in a modern-day slave trade.

The deeply uncomfortable possibility that nobody's saying out loud—a possibility we can infer from CP Foods' excellent certification and standing in the industry—is that maybe these kinds of practices aren't anomalies. Maybe terrible things done in overlooked corners of poor countries, from garment factories in Bangladesh to the fisheries of Thailand, are just a fact of large-scale global capitalism.

Maybe the anomaly is when we notice.


Comments (11) RSS

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Ballard Pimp 1
Besides, there's that Leviticus thing...
Posted by Ballard Pimp on June 24, 2014 at 2:13 PM · Report this
Phoebe in Wallingford 2
Good for Whole Foods. At the risk of spam, I can't help but link to this shrimp marinade recipe.
Posted by Phoebe in Wallingford on June 24, 2014 at 2:24 PM · Report this
3 Comment Pulled (Trolling) Comment Policy
I'm surprised Costco isn't getting out, as they enjoy and profit from their goodwill and reputation. I too am interested in their rationale and what they plan to do.
Posted by wxPDX on June 24, 2014 at 2:52 PM · Report this
It's not just shrimp, it's basically any canned seafood from SE Asia. Sardines, mackerel, squid, you name it. All harvested/processed by Burmese slaves. It's also not just the recent Guardian story, this info has been out for a while:……
Posted by HW3 on June 24, 2014 at 3:28 PM · Report this
raindrop 6
@5: Not to mention that cat food from SE Asia that gets sold as glorified road kill at upscale pet stores like 'All the Best' (shudder).
Posted by raindrop on June 24, 2014 at 3:41 PM · Report this
I agree.
Expect Costco to be in the lead.
Posted by caution&daring on June 24, 2014 at 4:08 PM · Report this
Why should a an industry's reliance on slave labor prevent it from being certified for environmental and social sustainability? The institution of human slavery arose at the dawn of civilization, the earliest written legal codes make reference to it, and remained widespread until the 19th century. If that's not sustainable what is?
Posted by Ken Mehlman on June 24, 2014 at 4:19 PM · Report this
I'm afraid your last two paragraphs are all too true. I'm sure you can get people to give up their Thai prawns, but don't say a discouraging word about the factories that manufacture their precious smartphones!
Posted by bigyaz on June 24, 2014 at 4:29 PM · Report this
Fish meal you say, does that mean it's likely the pet food I'm feeding my tropical fish supports slavery too ? I always suspected the lemon tetras envisioned themselves as "masters" of the ocean.
Posted by ChefJoe on June 24, 2014 at 6:49 PM · Report this
seatackled 11

Maybe not that easy. You can order the veggie tempura without the prawns at Japanese restaurants, but what are we going to do about dim sum?
Posted by seatackled on June 25, 2014 at 12:02 AM · Report this

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