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Top 10 Species: Farmed shrimp

Marketers increasingly rely on certification programs to verify quality and sustainability

By Thyra Porter
February 01, 2008

Americans' love affair with shrimp became evident in 2001, when it overtook canned tuna as the nation's favorite seafood, in terms of per capita consumption. Shrimp remains No. 1 today, thanks not only to Americans' insatiable appetite for the product but also to the emergence of Pacific white shrimp ( Penaeus vannamei ).

Most of the shrimp that the United States imports is Pacific white shrimp, the most widely cultivated shrimp species in the world, accounting for about 60 percent of farmed-shrimp production, roughly twice as much as black tiger shrimp ( P. monodon ), the second most popular farmed-shrimp species. Pacific whites are in demand because they are commercially the most viable to produce.

According to William More, VP and director of the Aquaculture Certification Council in Kirkland, Wash., vannamei accounted for nearly 70 percent of cultivated shrimp sold worldwide this past year, up from about 45 percent five years ago.

Because black tigers are more expensive to farm than Pacific whites, More says countries like Thailand, Indonesia and China have in recent years changed to producing and exporting white shrimp exclusively. Now only Vietnam, India and Bangladesh export black tigers in any significant amounts, More says.

White shrimp are easier and less expensive to farm because they have a higher resistance to disease and thus have better survival rates and can be stocked in higher densities.

They also grow faster than black tigers, leading to more crops and lower and more stable pricing, which appeals to supermarkets and restaurants in both the United States and Europe, More says.

Nearly 80 percent of the shrimp sold in the United States last year were farmed shrimp, according 
to More.

 

Sustainability hits home

As demand for shrimp grows in the United States, so does demand for certified, sustainably produced seafood products.

And as consumers look for more environmental responsibility from food suppliers, certification isn't just for high-end stores and restaurants: Wal-Mart and Darden Restaurants now require shrimp farmers to meet the Global Aquaculture Alliance's Best Aquaculture Practices, which are being developed to evaluate aquaculture facilities for key issues such as environmental and social responsibility, animal welfare, food safety 
and traceability.

Tim Redmond, president of Blue Horizon Organic Seafood in Aptos, Calif., an importer of organic seafood, notes environmental sustainability is gaining worldwide notoriety, along with organic foods, which he says have expanded from produce to the farmed-shrimp market at retail.

Certification is important, he says, but for a U.S. company doing business overseas, certification of manufacturing standards comes down to trust.

"In general, you have to rely on the veracity of the certification officer to do their job in the process," Redmond says, noting that Blue Horizon officials visit shrimp farms twice annually on average.

Redmond says that interest in products made with organic shrimp is growing among supermarket retailers like Hannaford and Costco, thanks to increased focus on sourcing organic food.

"More and more retailers are reacting to the organic market," Redmond says. "And that means that consumers are interested in purchasing organic products."

However, those organic shrimp are being raised far away from the United States because the U.S. Department of Agriculture still hasn't set a standard for organic seafood; the National Organic Standards Board is still debating the issue. As a result, Blue Horizon sources from farms in 
Thailand and Ecuador.

"In general, when we source organic shrimp it has to be farmed," Redmond says, noting that Blue Horizon relies primarily on the certification process of each individual country for proof that the farmed shrimp are raised to organic standards.

Part of that focus on quality farmed shrimp comes as wild shrimp supplies go through ups and downs, says John Filose, VP of sales and marketing for Ocean Garden Products in San Diego.

"Wild shrimp is in short supply from all sources this year," says Filose, because wild shrimp production is cyclical. But farmed shrimp, which has a more stable supply, represents nearly 60 percent of Ocean Garden's product line, up from 40 percent five years ago.

"This time last year we were coming out of record production of wild shrimp in the Gulf [of Mexico], Mexico and Latin America, and now that's totally reversed," he says.

Farmed shrimp are cheaper and more reliable to produce, adds Filose.

Ocean Garden, largely a foodservice supplier, found that its upscale retail customers like Whole Foods do well with the company's Pride of Mexico bags of frozen farmed Pacific whites, both peeled and shell-on in 1-pound bags - a convenient size for shoppers to create shrimp meals at home, Filose says.

Marketing certification

Promoting certification is gaining more importance as sustainability grows as a trend.

Ocean Garden's Web site praises its Mexican farmed shrimp as grown in, "Low density, ecologically friendly aquaculture methods that are a model of sustainability and quality control."

On its consumer Web site, Contessa Premium Foods of San Pedro, Calif., uses a green image, promoting its shrimp as "turtle safe."

Late last year, the company unveiled the world's first frozen-food processing plant certified by the United States Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design's (LEED) green building-rating system.

The plant includes a solar-power system that reduces carbon dioxide emissions and a loading dock that prevents the loss of refrigerated air, reducing temperature fluctuation in that area.

For suppliers like Redmond, a founder of Eden Valley Organic Foods, and a businessman who has pioneered the organic food market for nearly 40 years, a certification program can't replace visiting a processing plant first-hand to determine whether farmers adhere to organic or other standards.

"There's no way we can watch over every detail of that farming process, but there's a personal side too. You can see it for yourself. Organic farming is happening all over the world, as farmers on both land and sea opt not to be irresponsible with their food production," says Redmond.

 

Accountability grows

The GAA's BAP program has gained support from Wal-Mart and Darden Restaurants, thanks to the group's efforts to expand its certification to include farmed fish like tilapia. But reaching chefs at the local level requires some more marketing work.

Chefs look for more accountability, says Walter Loehman, a longtime Portland, Maine-based restaurateur and chef whose 
latest venture is Fresh!, a restaurant specializing in local and organic cuisine in South Portland.

Because the IQF process for freezing seafood has advanced to such a degree, consumers are very comfortable with buying frozen farmed shrimp, Loehman says.

In fact, "People usually assume that all shrimp comes frozen," 
he says.

However, as the chef of a white-tablecloth restaurant actively marketing a concept of top-quality cooking, he would like to see the seafood market set a global unified standard that would make it easier to confirm that brands of shrimp marketed as organic, or harvested in a sustainable manner were, in fact, true to what the label says.

"It would be great if all these different suppliers and fish farmers and other groups could get together so that we could be sure that there is some clear unity about what is organic, fresh and safe to eat," Loehman adds. 
And that's not just a farmed shrimp problem.

Loehman noted he had just finished unpacking a shipment of organic garlic that was grown 
in China.

"From seafood to produce we need more professional assurances that what suppliers are saying - about food being local or organic - is true," Loehman says.

 

Contributing Editor Thyra Porter lives in Cape Elizabeth, Maine

 

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