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.