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Record-Breaking Numbers Reveal Consumers’ Insatiable Appetite for Popular Seafood

Jan. 13, 2005

Record-Breaking Numbers Reveal Consumers’ Insatiable Appetite for Popular Seafood

Public Citizen Releases Third Report on Farm-Raised Shrimp, Focuses on Import and Consumption Patterns

WASHINGTON, D.C. – A record-setting billion pounds of shrimp was imported for seafood lovers in the United States in 2003, but most consumers don’t realize where the popular food comes from, said Public Citizen today as it released another section of its Pharmed Shrimp Series. As part of its continuing public education campaign on imported farm-raised shrimp, the group again urged consumers to be cautious when buying and eating shrimp.

The report, Shrimp Stockpile: Importing America’s Favorite Seafood, is the third in a series that documents the dangers of shrimp aquaculture.  Shrimp aquaculture uses a factory-farming model that douses shrimp with pesticides, antibiotics and other chemicals; most shrimp farms are in Southeast Asia, where labor and environmental standards are considerably weaker than in the United States.

Recent news reports have tied some of the devastating effects of last month’s tsunami to the destruction of mangroves which historically lined the coasts in many countries in Southeast Asia. Mangroves are often destroyed to make room for shrimp farms. When they’re cut down, a natural barrier to the ocean is eliminated, making it easier for tidal waves to reach the shore.

Today, in the United States, shrimp is the No. 1 seafood choice, and nearly 90 percent of it is imported. More than 80 percent of the shrimp imported from foreign markets is farm-raised.

While consumers’ hunger for shrimp grows, so do company profits, especially for large restaurant chains like Red Lobster and Long John Silver’s. In 2003, U.S consumers ate $3.8 billion worth of imported shrimp. Among the larger companies, such as privately held Red Chamber, shrimp sales account for more than $100 million annually.

“Our love of shrimp is partially driven by constant advertising from restaurants and companies that bait consumers with low prices,” said Andrianna Natsoulas, field director at Public Citizen’s food program. “But it’s not fair to consumers to tell them ‘eat more and more and more’ without giving them the whole story behind the shrimp that winds up on their plates.”

Among the bigger players in the seafood industry are Darden Restaurant Group, which owns and operates 1,300 Red Lobster restaurants; ConAgra Foods, which has a seafood subsidiary with annual sales of $1.2 billion; and Sysco Corporation, the largest foodservice distributor in the U.S. with annual seafood sales of more than $1 billion.

Today, 70 percent of shrimp consumed in the United States is eaten in restaurants. And at supermarket seafood departments, 31 percent of sales come from shrimp alone. With statistics like this, companies have found a gold mine and are determined to protect their product from any negative publicity. In fact, the Global Aquaculture Alliance, which represents 1,000 companies, was formed in 1997 to counter opposition to the shrimp aquaculture industry.

“No company wants any bad news leaking out about the shrimp they’re importing and selling because it would affect their profits,” said Natsoulas. “That’s why it’s important for consumers to demand to know where their food comes from – these companies are not going to tell you anything they don’t have to. Consumers have a right to know and to make informed purchasing decisions.”

With new mandatory country-of-origin labeling laws due to go into effect this spring, Public Citizen has been urging consumers to pay attention to whether the shrimp is farm-raised or wild-caught. At the grocery stores, this label will provide this information, as well as where shrimp comes from. Restaurant food is not labeled, so customers should ask where it comes from. Public Citizen urges consumers to buy only wild-caught shrimp.