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Global shrimp crisis is hitting menus across the world

Early Mortality Syndrome in shrimp farms in Thailand is causing havoc to restaurateurs across the world.

PRICES FOR SHRIMP or prawns, as they are often referred to, have soared to a 12-year high since a deadly illness called Early Mortality Syndrome (EMS) swept through shrimp farms in Thailand causing havoc to restaurateurs across the world.

In October, Jamie’s Italian, a restaurant chain owned by celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, pulled shrimp linguine from its menu. In the US, Red Lobster were forced to scrap its all-you-can-eat “Endless Shrimp” special which lasted just six weeks this year instead of three months.

Restaurants

The impact of the disease on this food source shows how the globalisation of the food-supply chain has expanded to include not just commodities like coffee, sugar and beef, but virtually everything on the table.

Once a local delicacy prized for freshness, shrimp is now produced at farms in Asia, South America and Mexico and sucked up by distributors wherever the price is cheapest.
imageFluctuation of shrimp prices

Shrimp reproduce quickly, can be frozen easily and have a freezer life of 12 months. That has spawned a multibillion-dollar global shrimp farming business and made the crustacean a popular item on menus.

But the shrimp trade also illustrates how volatile that global supply chain can be. A restaurant can feel the effects of changing weather patterns, natural disasters or disease on the other side of the world.

These days, Santa Monica Seafood, the Southwest’s largest seafood distributor, says the Asian shortage has sent prices soaring for Mexican shrimp it buys. Even with an upscale wholesale and restaurant clientele, Santa Monica Seafood isn’t passing along that extra cost, for now.

Menus

“Most restaurants are cautious about menu price increases in this challenging economy,” says Don Henry, vice president of purchasing and distribution at Sizzler. “And I know retailers are just as competitive – but seem to have some more flexibility in pricing.”

In their own intense price competition, shrimp growers may have disregarded health and safety issues to cut costs, according to seafood buyers like Casey Hartnett.

“In Asia, the ponds are disgusting,” he says. “Of course, if you have tons of shrimp in a single pond there’s going to be disease.”

A pound of jumbo white shrimp from Asia cost $8.40 a pound in October, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s weekly report on frozen seafood coming into New York. Prices have subsequently dipped a bit.

Disease

EMS first appeared in 2009, when an outbreak in China spread to Vietnam, Malaysia, and now Thailand.

The bacterial infection produces toxins that slow growth, prevent reproduction, and eventually kill the shrimp. Infected farms have reported losses of up to 70 percent. Many farms have had to shut down and Thailand’s shrimp exports to the US in July declined 58 percent, from a year earlier.

In May, researchers at the University of Arizona identified the cause of EMS as being bacteria whose growth is fostered by overcrowding in ponds. But because farmers are reluctant to move to lower-density farming, shrimp production isn’t likely to return to pre-epidemic levels without significant increases in farmed area.

Experts estimate it will be several years before Southeast Asia can eradicate the disease.

Shortages in Asia sent buyers to Latin America to fill the void. However, Mexico and Ecuador couldn’t produce enough to make up for the losses.

That has created tension for businesses, such as Sizzler and Santa Monica Seafood, which have shouldered the extra costs.

“We [buy] three-quarters of a million pounds of wild Mexican shrimp,” says Logan Kock, head of sourcing for Santa Monica Seafood. “EMS, which kills farmed shrimp, has caused this wild shrimp to move up more than 50 percent over the last year.”

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