Photo: David Hammond

The Thanksgiving-Xmas-NYE season, at our house as at many others, is marked by several traditional holiday foods, including shrimp. To procure the shrimp, we usually try to find the best price; shrimp, once a luxury good, now seems pretty much a commodity product. We used to buy shrimp based largely on cost. Lately, however, we’re scrutinizing labels more carefully and digging a little deeper in our pockets.

According to Aidan McQuade, director of Anti-Slavery International, quoted in the Washington Post, “If you buy prawns or shrimp from Thailand, you will be buying the produce of slave labor.” Now, “slave labor” is a frightening term, and it seems to apply to both unsavory labor practices as well as out-and-out human bondage, people enslaved to perform the tedious hand-work involved in peeling and de-veining shrimp.

The United States imports nearly half the shrimp that Thailand harvests, and Associated Press found that such “shrimp peeled by modern-day slaves is reaching the U.S., Europe and Asia.” According to U.S. Customs records, Thai shrimp “made its way into the supply chains of major U.S. food stores and retailers such as Wal-Mart, Kroger, Whole Foods, Dollar General and Petco, along with restaurants such as Red Lobster and Olive Garden.” Yes, even Whole Foods, which would seem to be the shining (though costly) exemplar of the organic and the good, reportedly traffics in slave shrimp.

The Wholey’s brand shrimp in the photo above, which I found at Caputo’s on Harlem, is listed in the Washington Post as one of many brands that have been found to be “compromised” by labor abuses.

This is not to say that all Thai or other Southeast Asian shrimp is the result of slave labor, but some seems to be, and seafood companies have been engaging in a kind of shell game involving the shipping of shrimp from questionable sources to third-party countries where the shrimp is bagged, labeled and sent on to the United States. In this way, the country of origin can be hidden from the consumer.

Some major grocery chains, like Costco, are making efforts to purge their freezer cabinets of shrimp and shrimp products that are tainted by labor abuses or slavery, and that’s a good thing. For our Thanksgiving celebration, we decided to buy shrimp from the Gulf.  At Mariano’s, Gulf shrimp came in around $15/pound. That’s about $5 more per pound than shrimp from Thailand and Southeast Asian countries suspected of engaging in practices that most Americans would not condone.  If you’re interested in shopping locally (and you should be), Carnivore has peeled and deveined Gulf shrimp for $22/pound.

Paying a little more for shrimp can be a good way to ensure you’re not supporting slavery and other repugnant labor practices – plus, you get the added advantage of buying American.

Of course, all this might be for naught if the Gulf shrimp were not as good as the Thai shrimp we used to purchase. Turns out, the Gulf shrimp we had for Thanksgiving was some of the very best shrimp in memory: frim, sweet and tender. Honestly, we’re not that crazy about Gulf oysters, so this is not a blanket endorsement of Gulf crustacean, but those Gulf shrimp were fantastic – and purchasing them allowed us to sleep better at night.

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David Hammond

David Hammond, a corporate communications consultant and food journalist living in Oak Park, Illinois, is a founder and moderator of, the 8,500 member Chicago-based culinary chat site. David...

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