Just over a year ago, the phrase “horse meat” was all over the news after many minced beef products in UK supermarkets were found to have been adulterated with horse. Whilst horse is perfectly edible, the spotlight was on convoluted supply chains and the way consumers were mislead. In the aftermath, major retailers pledged to improve the traceability of products and that’s what makes the result of a recent investigation by The Guardian so shocking: that prawns being in sold in British supermarkets are linked with slavery and human trafficking in Thailand.
Over a six month investigation, journalists uncovered that fishing boats, operating with enslaved crews for tuna and other valuable fish in the Bay of Thailand, were selling on their by-catch (that is, fish not being targeted or suitable for sale) to be made into fishmeal, the primary feed for farmed prawns (sold typically as king or jumbo in the UK). The Guardian found that the fishmeal was being bought by major companies, in particular Charoen Pokphand Foods (CPF), responsible for approximately 10% of Thailand’s prawn farming industry. CPF supplies the world’s three largest supermarket chains (Walmart, which owns Asda, Carrefour and Tesco) as well as Aldi, Morrisons, Iceland and the Co-operative. Although problems of slavery in Thai fisheries were well known, this investigation was the first to definitively join the dots from South-east Asia to British dinner plates.
Normally I tend to shy away from the political and ethical arguments surrounding the food industry but reading the original article touched a nerve. The stories of conditions and experiences on illegal Thai fishing ships are appalling, with regular torture and brutal killings. And it’s all bankrolled (at least in part) by prawn farming to feed European and American demand, including my own.
I have been complicit in these people’s suffering. Unknowingly so, we probably all have.
I like prawns: they’re low in fat, tasty and quick to cook. I buy frozen, raw king prawns in a bag from Sainsbury’s that makes about 6 portions of curry or stir-fries. Those prawns are farmed in Thailand. Sainsbury’s is one of the few supermarket chains that was not implicated directly in the investigation by The Guardian as it traced only CPF’s prawn products, however, slavery in Thailand’s fishing industry in endemic. In a statement released on 10th June, CPF state that this issue “affects all [prawn] producers in Thailand” and are auditing their entire supply chain. Last year company higher-ups met with TV chef and activist Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall as part of his “Fish Fight” campaign, and introduced a plan to improve the environmental impact of their industry which included switching to a soy-based feed instead of the traditional fishmeal. I could however find no suggestion that other companies in Thailand were making similar commitments.
Based on The Guardian’s exposé, many environmental and human rights groups are calling for a boycott of Thai seafood by consumers at the supermarket checkout. While this can have an impact, I don’t feel it will solve the problem for two reasons: despite the major global retailers involved, much of the mainstream media at time of writing (including the BBC) hasn’t chosen to run the story, and secondly, prawns aren’t the problem – it’s the fishmeal used to feed them.
Fishmeal is made from cooked, dried and compressed fish, typically by-catch or fish that aren’t suitable for sale either due to their size or their species. It’s been used for centuries as a cheap, nutrient rich feed for livestock and plants alike all over the world and its use in prawn farming is a modern one. There’s a global market for fishmeal, just as there is for everything else, and Thailand is a major producer. While The Guardian only traced the products of “ghost ships” to CPF and the prawn farming industry, there’s no reason that the fishmeal couldn’t end up as fertiliser for crops, feed for pigs and chickens or even domestic pet food that is used anywhere in the world and ends up in our shops all the same.
With such a complex supply chain involved, it’s not possible for consumer action, even on a large scale, to have much effect on trafficking in Thai fisheries: this requires the input of governments and serious co-operation by retailers and producers in Thailand and abroad. And, it raises questions about where else in our food supply networks are similar things going on.
I won’t be buying Thai prawns any time soon, and I hope that you won’t either. If we needed a reminder of the things horse burgers taught us last year about provenance and traceability, how our food is produced and how it gets to our plate, this is a very stark one.