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Is Slave Labor Shrimp Being Served in American Restaurants?

The Associated Press says Olive Garden and Red Lobster are guilty of serving seafood produced under horrific conditions.

Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

You may never order shrimp cocktail again: A new investigative report by the Associated Press alleges that U.S. restaurant chains have been serving shrimp produced with slave labor.

The AP report gives horrific details of migrant workers held captive in "shrimp sheds," forced to peel and devein tons of shrimp bound for the U.S. market. The report paints a vivid picture of one factory located in the port town of Samut Sakhon, near Bangkok, where children work alongside adults and workers are referred to not by their names but rather by assigned numbers. Laborers are locked inside and forced to work long hours with little pay. Workers at another factory told reporters "A woman eight months pregnant miscarried on the shed floor and was forced to keep peeling for four days while hemorrhaging."

The news that Thailand uses slave labor to fuel its gigantic shrimping industry is nothing new, however, nor are the reports that the products have found their way stateside a new revelation: Last summer a six-month investigation by The Guardian revealed that shrimp produced with Thai slave labor was being sold at grocery stores in the U.S. and the UK, including Costco and Walmart. The AP began publishing its own findings on slave labor in the Thai seafood industry back in March of this year, resulting in multiple arrests and thousands of workers being freed.

But the AP has now tracked global supply chains to reveal even more companies who have allegedly been selling the products produced by the hands of slaves. According to the new report, "U.S. customs records show the shrimp made its way into the supply chains of major U.S. food stores and retailers such as Wal-Mart, Kroger, Whole Foods, Dollar General and Petco, along with restaurants such as Red Lobster and Olive Garden."

Americans consume more than a billion pounds of shrimp annually, including nearly half of Thailand's yearly production. Sadly, shrimp isn't the only product produced by slave labor Americans may be consuming — according to the U.S. Department of Labor, more than 100 types of goods from 74 countries are produced with forced labor or child labor, from clothing in Bangladesh to rice in India. But even those confident their seafood isn't coming from Thailand may not be free from reproach: The AP report notes that the U.S. State Department has previously "tied such seafood to 55 countries on six continents, including major suppliers to the U.S."

Thai Union, a gigantic global seafood supplier that the AP says is distributing and exporting much of the slave labor shrimp, has "announced it will bring all shrimp-processing in-house by the end of the year and provide jobs to workers whose factories close as a result." Meanwhile, as almost 90 percent of shrimp sold in the U.S. is imported, eating American-caught shrimp may currently be the only safe choice for consumers who are concerned about where their food comes from.

Reached for comment by Eater, a rep for Olive Garden denies that the company served shrimp produced by slave labor, issuing a statement that read in part, "As a values-based company, Darden deplores any mistreatment of workers. The issue of human and workplace rights is one we take very seriously. Our supply chain team has confirmed that we did not receive any product from the pre-processing sources identified in the Associated Press story." Red Lobster says it's also confident it has not served shrimp produced by slave labor, and a statement issued to Eater focuses on what the company will do going forward:

Red Lobster sources seafood from trusted, long-term suppliers around the world. We know we play an important role in setting and ensuring compliance with seafood industry standards, and we’re committed to doing our part to make sure the seafood we buy and serve is sourced in a way that is ethical, responsible and sustainable.

We take allegations of human rights and labor abuses in the seafood industry broadly and our supply chain specifically very seriously, and we are proactively working with our suppliers to reduce and ultimately eliminate these activities. The Red Lobster Code of Conduct clearly states our position on the importance of upholding human rights, social welfare and fair labor practices. We take swift and immediate action with any supplier or business partner who violates the law, compromises our standards or participates in social welfare abuses.

We fully support and are engaged in the ongoing work of our long-term, trusted suppliers, including Thai Union, and industry associations like the National Fisheries Institute to eliminate worker abuse across the seafood industry.

In addition to these broader efforts around social welfare, Red Lobster is:

  • Actively engaged with the Shrimp Sustainable Supply Chain Task Force, and supportive of the group’s proactive work through Thai Union and the National Fisheries Institute.
  • Pleased to see the swift and meaningful actions Thai Union has taken to improve its own supply chain practices, including robust internal and third party audits (conducted by UL), ceasing business with those in violation of their code of conduct and making human trafficking economically non-viable.
  • Fully supporting the Royal Thai Government’s recent aggressive legislation to enforce traceable sourcing and directly address labor abuses in the seafood industry.
  • Engaged in discussions with Project Issara, a public-private sector platform that also helps tackle human trafficking in Southeast Asia.

Whole Foods did not immediately respond to request for comment.