December 16, 2015 11:58 am
Updated: December 17, 2015 5:39 pm

Want to avoid slave labour shrimp? It can be a challenging task for consumers

WATCH ABOVE: Slave-peeled shrimp on sale in shops in North America, Europe

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Industry experts are urging Canadians to be vigilant when shopping for seafood in the wake of a report that uncovered slave and child labour tied to Thailand’s shrimp production.

An investigative series by the Associated Press uncovered forced labourers and children working 16 hours a day for little or no pay. Many were locked inside for months on end at shrimp-processing factories in Thailand, the investigation found.

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READ MORE: Activists called on consumers to stop buying shrimp from Thailand

How can you avoid buying and eating slave-peeled shrimp? It can be difficult say experts who’ve studied the issue.

Journalists tracked the peeled shrimp to the U.S., Europe and Asia, including retailers like Wal-Mart, Whole Foods, along with restaurants such as Red Lobster. The AP investigation did not indicate whether the shrimp made it to Canadian stores.

Although the AP report did not say that slave-peeled shrimp made it to Canada, Fancy Feast can also be found on the shelves at stores across Canada.

A spokesperson with Nestlé Purina PetCare said on a limited number of Fancy Feast product units “use seafood ingredients that have been sourced from Southeast Asia.”

“The vast majority of Fancy Feast items are produced in the U.S. and are not made with any seafood ingredients from Southeast Asia,” a spokesperson said. “In the case of fish and seafood, we are, for example, engaging with our suppliers in Thailand to identify any potential unlawful labour practices and pursue appropriate actions to eliminate such practices from our supply chain.”

READ MORE: Men forced to work as slaves in Indonesia to catch seafood for global supply

Red Lobster and Whole Foods told Global News Tuesday that third-party audits assured them their supplier, Thai Union, had not shipped out shrimp processed by children and slaves.

“At the first reports of labor issues within the Thai seafood industry, we investigated our own supply chain – going beyond our existing third-party audits of processing facilities by conducting our own on-site inspections of Thai Union facilities,” a spokesperson for Whole Foods said in a statement.

“We are confident that Thai Union shrimp supplied to Whole Foods Market did not come from an illicit processing facility, nor do we purchase any shrimp from peeling shed facilities.”

While a spokesperson for Red Lobster said the company takes allegations of human rights and labor abuses in our supply chain very seriously.”

“We have investigated the claims in the Associated Press story, and we are confident based on our findings and assurances from Thai Union that our seafood supply was not associated with the abusive pre-processing facilities,” Red Lobster said in a statement.

A Walmart Canada spokesperson told Global New they were investigating the issue.

“We are aware of the Associated Press story, and we were horrified by the conditions and treatment of workers the reporters uncovered,” the spokesperson said.

The AP found otherwise: In the report, Thai Union admitted it didn’t know the source of all its shrimp. Thai Union sent a note promising to exclusively use in-house labour starting Jan. 1.

The National Fisheries Institute, which represents about 75 per cent of the U.S. seafood industry, told the Associated Press it will stick with its Thai distributors despite the abuse revelations.

Loblaw, the largest food retailer in Canada, was not mentioned in the AP report and did not respond directly to a request for comment from Global News. In a 2014 Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) report stated that Loblaw would aim to have 93 per cent of its seafood from sources certified by organizations like the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) and Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), which promote sustainable farming practices and seafood choices.

David Miller, president and CEO WWF-Canada, says his organization continues to ask Canadian shoppers to think twice when purchasing that shrimp ring or piece of fish.

“If you purchase certified shrimp from the Gulf of the St. Lawrence or if you purchase shrimp from other east coast sources where it’s managed to a very high standard, people can be certain they are meeting environmental as well as human rights criteria,” said Miller.

READ MORE: Here’s what you need to know about the child, slave shrimp investigation

Some companies are more proactive.

Waterview Market shrimp, which sells its signature shrimp at Loblaw’s stores across Canada, visits its farming locations in India and Vietnam.

“We are a small company, but we go to Asia often,” said Sunny McGaw, vice president of marketing. “I go there personally to meet the people, know the people. We invest to make sure that it’s as good as we want it to be. … We take a feet on the street approach.”

Theodora (Teddie) Geach, a seafood specialist with Ocean Wise, says reading production information and asking retailers where their seafood comes from are the best way to ensure it’s ethically sourced.

But even then she said, tracking your food can be almost impossible.

“The seafood supply chain is so complex it’s hard to know where it’s coming from unless it comes directly from the boat to your plate,” she said. “If the retailer or fishmonger isn’t able to answer their questions … then they shouldn’t be buying that piece of seafood.”

Ocean Wise

Developed by the Vancouver Aquarium, Ocean Wise puts its stamp of approval on products sold in restaurants markets and retail locations across Canada to help consumers make sustainable seafood choices.

But that rating system doesn’t focus on the human right’s aspect of fishing.

Customers can also look for labels on products from the Marine Stewarship Council or the Aquaculture Stewardship Council.

Aquaculture Stewardship Council

Founded in 2010 by in partnership with World Wildlife Fund, the ASC works with producers, processors, retail and foodservice companies to promote the best environmental and social choice  when buying seafood.

They also have provisions about not purchasing seafood from forced labour.

Marine Stewardship Council

The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) is an international, non-profit organization that manages a labelling systems which it says guarantees that the wild seafood was caught using methods that do not deplete the natural supply. The label also guarantees that fishing companies do not cause serious harm to other forms of sea life, from coral reefs to dolphins.

However, the MSC label has faced criticism in the past for giving it’s stamp of approval to some fisheries that are considered exploratory by researchers.

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