The high price of cheap shrimp: where restaurants get their prawns from and why you should care

The high price of cheap shrimp: where restaurants get their prawns from and why you should care

(Illustration: Brett Lamb)

We’ve gradually come to care about how our beef is raised, who stitches together our clothes and the carbon footprint of our strawberries. We want to know the number of bluefin tuna in the ocean and whether our chicken sandwiches are sold by homophobes. But shrimp? Not yet. People, for the most part, don’t care. But they should. Of the many problems with the global shrimp trade, the worst involve actual slavery and human trafficking. As the Guardian has reported, Burmese and Cambodian immigrants are forced to work 20-hour days on Thai and Indonesian boats, kept awake with amphetamines, chained, beaten and murdered. These aren’t mere allegations: CP Foods, the world’s biggest shrimp farmer (for clients that include Walmart and Costco), have conceded that slavery is part of the supply chain. The company promised to change their practices, no longer buying the “trash fish” from slave boats that’s ground into food for farmed shrimp. But a year after that story out of Thailand comes further news from Indonesia reported by the Associated Press, of slaves fishing for shrimp that’s then dumped onto trucks bound for international seafood suppliers.

Like all other food, shrimp get expensive when you start caring about where they come from.

First, some background, which I got from Dan Donovan, co-owner of the sustainable seafood retailer and wholesaler Hooked Inc.

Ten years ago, most shrimp came from midwater trawling—boats dragging nets. The nets are supposed to hang at a depth that doesn’t dredge the bottom, but invariably they damage the sea floor. And the discard ratio was about 30 to 1. That’s 30 pounds of bycatch—sea creatures, caught and thrown away—to land a pound of shrimp. The industry responded to public pressure and eventually found markets to sell some of the bycatch, and lowering that ratio to about 7 to 1. Not perfect, but better.

These days, though, the bulk of the world’s shrimp is farmed, basically in ponds, using growth hormones and antibiotics—“toxic sludge,” Donovan calls it, his cute term for the mix of drugs and poop that the farmed shrimp live in. Canada’s main suppliers are Indonesia and Vietnam, where shrimp from multiple farms are sorted by size before being frozen and shipped in blocks, making it hard to trace the origins of any package.

And then there’s early mortality syndrome (EMS), a disease that wiped out the shrimp market in China, Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia two years ago, causing the big suppliers to buy up everything that unaffected Indonesia had, doubling prices in the process.

It’s pretty murky business, and as the retail cost of shrimp has risen to nearly $30 a pound, I just eat less shrimp—birthdays and bar mitzvahs only. For restaurants, that’s not really possible: diners count every last shrimp on the plate. Chefs either have to serve big portions of “don’t ask, don’t tell” shrimp or absorb the sticker shock of charging what good quality shrimp costs. For a sense of how they tackle these sticky choices, I called up some Toronto chefs and store owners known for their seafood, and a few that aren’t. The ones concerned with sustainable fishing practices talked my ear off, while others were eager to get off the phone.

Michael Steh (executive chef at The Chase, Little Fin, The Chase Fish & Oyster and Colette Grand Café)

“As a chef, you want to celebrate amazing shrimp when you can get it,” says Steh, estimating that only about two out of ten guests ask where it’s from. “There’s nothing better than having a fresh spot prawn shipped to you the same day.”

Afraid to use anything from overseas because he doesn’t know where it’s really coming from, Steh’s happy with white gulf shrimp, farmed or wild, from Florida and the Gulf of Mexico.

“At the very least, I can get in contact with people in the Gulf of Mexico through my supplier. If I can ask the questions to those growers or farmers, that to me is a much better relationship to have than following a list of what you should and shouldn’t be buying.”

Kanida Chey (chef at Branca)

Chey buys spot prawns from B.C. when they’re in season—eight weeks a year—and frozen ones from Argentina the rest of the year. Even wholesale, it can cost the restaurant between $18 and $24 a pound.

“I was skeptical at first. When I tried them, they were almost a cross between a lobster and a shrimp,” says Chey of the frozen product. He marinates his shrimp in an escabeche sauce—onion, garlic, saffron, white champagne vinegar and honey—and serves them with fried plantains, avocado purée and crema.

“I think the average diner can tell what a bad shrimp is now. They’re overfishing in Thailand and Vietnam. The stuff that the shrimp are eating alters the taste and texture. The Thai shrimps, yeah, you can get them for $6.99. They’re edible. But are they something you’d be proud to serve, put a price on and tell the guests to pay for?”

Nuit Regular (co-owner of Pai, Sabai Sabai and Sukhothai)

“I get shrimp from Thailand—black tiger shrimp,” says Regular, who believes she’s getting a clean product. “Most of the shrimp that we get, they do natural farming in Thailand. They have no hormone use. Because I’m from Thailand, I try to ask my relatives and follow the news. The price of the shrimp has changed a lot. We tried to get to the suppliers. In the end, I got my meat supplier to broker for us.”

Regular’s supplier, Nosso Talho, tells a different story. “I can’t say they have no antibiotics in the shrimp,” says owner Robert Lima. “Hormones, I can’t say for sure either.” Lima is candid about the shrimp’s origins. “If a plant is from a certain town in Thailand, I wouldn’t guarantee that all the shrimp comes from that town. I can’t vouch for the packers in Thailand. I can vouch for the quality of the product. But in terms of food traceability, I can’t vouch for anybody overseas.”

Elisa Corrigan (executive chef at SPiN)

A King West ping-pong hall is the last place you’d expect to find great shrimp. But Corrigan uses wild Argentine red shrimp in her dumplings, mixed with a little chive and chili, steamed and fried. “I just know it’s reliable and consistent and delicious,” she says. “My customers want it.” She figures it costs her 29 cents a shrimp. “And that’s with good quality, sustainable shrimp. When people aren’t willing to pay that amount, it means they really don’t care about it. We could get it from Sysco and charge our customers less, but I think you can taste value when it’s such a bare ingredient. You can always fluff up things and make them taste good with sugar and salt, but if the product is good you don’t need to add filler.”

Red Lobster

“Red Lobster is committed to helping protect the sustainability of the world’s seafood supply,” the chain’s Canadian website states. “We also know where our seafood comes from.” No one returned my calls and emails looking for more information.

Matt Dean Pettit (co-owner of Rock Lobster)

In Leslieville, on Queen West, and on Ossington, Rock Lobster serves up shrimp piled onto plates with oysters and crab, fried with buffalo sauce and blue cheese, on a roll with jerk seasoning and in a big pot with clams, mussels and chorizo. Pettit says he gets his shrimp “farmed and wild from the U.S., with spot prawns for specials, when they’re in season.”

Karen Sear, a sales rep for Seacore Seafood Inc., Rock Lobster’s supplier, corrects him. “They’re buying the black tiger shrimp from Vietnam….they’re farmed. It’s definitely not a sustainable product, Oceanwise-approved or anything like that. But as far as quality goes, they’re the very best available.”

Pettit doesn’t think so. He says he’s surprised when I write him back to tell him where his shrimp comes from. “The sole reason we switched from our previous supplier was to become more consciously sustainable with shrimp. I’m a bit pissed off. This is not the product we were supposed to have.”

Rodney Clark (owner of Rodney’s Oyster House)

Before opening, Clark says he tasted 15 different kinds of gulf shrimp until he found the right ones. “Most of our choices had freezer tastes,” Clark recalls of the search back in the ‘80s. “Until we tasted a product from a processor, with their own boats, at Bayou La Batre, Alabama.” For 26 years, he’s purchased white gulf shrimp from the same supplier in Mobile. He’ll also serve spot prawns when they’re in season, Matane shrimp from Quebec and trap-caught shrimp from Chedabucto Bay in Nova Scotia.

Dave Sidhu (owner of Playa Cabana, Cantina, Hacienda and Barrio Coreano)

“We use different things for different things,” says Sidhu. “We use gulf shrimp, which are my favourite. We also get shrimp from the Pacific, from Asia—they come from Indonesia. Or is it the Indian Ocean? I don’t even know. I’m pretty sure it’s Indonesia. We also have tiger prawns from Indonesia. Sometimes the sidestripe—those are out of B.C.”

His most popular shrimp dish is a shrimp burrito filled with tomatillo salsa, queso Oaxaca, beans, pico de gallo, guacamole and crema. He’s honest about his priorities.

“Obviously, quality and taste. But size and price, too. If you serve anybody shrimp that are smaller than 21 x 25s”—that’s the range of how many make up a pound; the bigger the range, the smaller the shrimp—“they start complaining. They seem to think that the value isn’t there.”

I ask if he’s able to find out about the growing conditions.

“Yeah. We can if we wanted to, but we don’t really know the actual suppliers or the farmers.”

Rob Gentile (chef and co-owner of Buca, Bar Buca and Buca Yorkville)

Gentile uses spot prawns in season, sidestripes from B.C. and green shrimp from Quebec, available for six weeks in the spring and six weeks in the fall. (Otherwise known as Nordic shrimp, the green guys come through Gentile’s supplier, Société-Orignal. They’re from a single fisherman, Dave Cotton, who incorporates solar power on his boat to use less fuel, plus nets with GPS that allow them to hover instead of dredging the bottom.) Five years ago, growers in Florida and Texas started raising closed-containment shrimp, land-based grow ops produced without antibiotics or growth hormones; Gentile’s working on getting shrimp from a new farm starting up in Ontario.

“If there’s something on the menu that’s made with shrimp and it’s cheap, then you obviously know where it’s coming from. There’s no point asking,” says Gentile. “At Buca we’ll pay 36 bucks a pound for spot prawns or side shrimps because we know it’s damn good and we know we’re going to get it fresh. People come in and are like, why is it so expensive? Well, because we’re buying the best possible product you can find. We’re not going to buy frozen shrimp from Thailand just because it’s cheaper.”