Thai prawns currently for sale in a Seattle QFC, which may or may not have been fed with slave-labor fishmeal. (QFC has not yet responded to requests for comment.)
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  • Thai prawns currently for sale in a Seattle QFC, which may or may not have been fed with slave-labor fishmeal. (QFC has not yet responded to requests for comment.)

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Last week, the Guardian dropped a series of stories about slavery—people bought, stuck on fishing boats, and forced to work for zero pay, enforced by beatings and murders in which workers are shot and thrown overboard—in the Thai prawn industry.

The slavery was documented on the fishmeal side of the supply chain: mega-agribusiness concerns such as CP Foods buying fishmeal (to feed their farmed prawns) from boats using slave labor.

The stories reported that the slave-implicated CP prawns were being sold by the world's top four retailers—Tesco, Costco, Correfour, and Walmart—as well as others.

So what do the retailers have to say about it?

All have expressed varying degrees of "concern," but the French chain Carrefour was the only one to announce that it would halt all CP Foods-related purchases. (This morning, Norwegian supermarket chain ICA became the second to yank CP Foods—namely, its "east coast scampi on sticks"—from its shelves.) And in Britain, the Labor Party has called for the UK government to stop supermarkets from "stocking food produced by slaves."

The US response has been more sluggish.

Over in Issaquah, Costco announced it would keep working with CP Foods, and as of yesterday Thai prawns (provenance unknown) were still for sale in Seattle supermarkets.

Over the past few days, I've called and emailed representatives at Kroger (which owns QFC and Fred Meyer), Safeway, and Uwajimaya asking if they carry Thai prawns, bought products from CP Foods, or were even aware of the Guardian stories. So far, only Safeway replied to the questions, saying they were being punted to another department "for further review and consideration."

One longtime industry analyst, who only agreed to speak anonymously, said he didn't know whether CP Foods was supplying those supermarket chains, but guessed they were. "CP is probably everywhere because they're so big," he said. "Most supermarket shrimp is now sold under the retailer's private label, so you'll see 'Kroger shrimp,' for example, that they're buying from other suppliers. The supermarkets will put that contract out to bid—because of the size of Kroger, I would assume that CP is one of the bidders. Safeway would put stuff out to bid, too."

CP's prawn business—and specifically its feed mills—have been awarded the Best Aquaculture Practices certification from the US-based Global Aquaculture Alliance, which was established several years ago to try and establish responsible standards in the international aquaculture trade.

How can such an industry heavyweight profit from slave labor and still pass BAP muster?

"We are working on a solution to help address this," George Chamberlain, president of the GAA wrote from an aquaculture conference in China. The BAP standards include social responsibility audits, as well as environmental and food-safety checks, he explained, but "BAP standards do not apply to wild catch fisheries, except that our feed mill standard addresses the environmental sustainability... However, it's becoming clear that social issues about fishing vessels are falling between the cracks."

CP itself tried to downplay the report, arguing that "the portion of feedmeal that may be involved such practices is minimal since 72% of its suppliers are certified."

Another US industry player who spoke on condition of anonymity—"it’s certainly a disturbing story," he explained, "so you don’t want to call attention to yourself in any way if you’re retailers just trying to do business and be responsible"—suggested that the Guardian stories may have been too sweeping. "There are a lot of good Thai companies out there, struggling to make a living," he said. "CP was called out, but I think there are obviously two sides to every story."

The big lesson of the Guardian slave stories has been in its fallout—how businesses and government did (or didn't) respond. Who took action and who minimized the story and kept on with business as usual? Europeans, the anonymous analyst said, "are much more sensitive to environmental and labor issues" than we are. "For example, the Marine Stewardship Council has a lot of traction over there and very little here."

The other lesson is that in a complex, globalized industry, even the most respected, high-profile corporations—who've been internationally audited for "responsibility"—have room in their supply chains for slavery.