TRANSCRIPT All You Can Eat: The True Story Behind America’s Most Popular Seafood

This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode All You Can Eat: The True Story Behind America’s Most Popular Seafood , first released on April 16, 2024. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.

PAUL GREENBERG: Growing up in the Northeast in the ’70s and ’80s, there was a chain, like a micro-chain called Beefsteak Charlie’s. And it advertised an unlimited shrimp bar.

BEEFSTEAK CHARLIE: I’m Beefsteak Charlie, and I’m warning you! My free shrimp and salad bar with your dinner could ruin your appetite.

GREENBERG: I found the old commercial and it’s this couple comes into Beefsteak Charlie’s and they go, and they go, Oh, shrimp, oh shrimp, shrimp, shrimp, shrimp!

WOMAN: Shrimp… shrimp… oh shrimp!

BOTH: Shrimp!

WOMAN: Oh, shrimp!

GREENBERG: And they get themselves into a lather and all they’re saying is shrimp again and again and again.

BOTH: Shrimp, shrimp shrimp! Shrimp!

GREENBERG: And then Beefsteak Charlie arrives with the steaks—

WAITER: Your steaks?

GREENBERG: And he goes, and here’s your steaks. And they go, steak?

NICOLA TWILLEY: Shrimp! Shrimp! Shrimp! Shrimp! It’s what makes America great!

CYNTHIA GRABER: Or at least it’s certainly what Americans think is great, because Americans eat more shrimp than any other seafood. At all. It is the number one seafood in America.

TWILLEY: Shrimp is the most beloved seafood in America, we are obviously the most beloved podcast in America, it’s an episode made in heaven. And we of course are Gastropod the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history. I’m Nicola Twilley.

GRABER: And I’m Cynthia Graber. And I’ve always wondered: why is a tiny little bug-like crustacean so incredibly popular? Forget crab and salmon and tuna, Americans are really into shrimp. Why?

TWILLEY: And also, when? Because hard as it is to believe, this hasn’t always been a land of all you can eat shrimp. There was a time when you couldn’t add shrimp to your salad or pasta for just a few dollars. So, what happened? How did shrimp explode?

GRABER: We’ve got the story behind that shrimp explosion this episode, and what you need to know when you next enjoy America’s very favorite seafood.

TWILLEY: This episode is supported in part by the Alfred P Sloan Foundation for the Public Understanding of Science, Technology and Economics, and of course by you our fabulous listener supporters. Gastropod is part of the Vox Media Podcast Network in partnership with Eater.


HOMER SIMPSON: All you can eat! All you can eat! [EATING]

WAITER: That man ate all our shrimp! And two plastic lobsters!

IAN URBINA: Shrimp is wildly popular in the US. On average, Americans devour about six pounds of shrimp per year. So that’s just, you know, multiply that out by the 300 million Americans and you’ve got a really really massive number.

GRABER: You might recognize Paul Greenberg’s voice, he’s the author of American Catch. He’s been on the show before, including in our most recent oyster episode.

TWILLEY: And that second voice, that was Ian Urbina, he’s a journalist and director of the Outlaw Ocean Project, an investigative journalism nonprofit that focuses on the ocean. The first voice was, of course, Homer Simpson, taking the all-you-can-eat at the all-you-can-eat shrimp buffet extremely literally!

GRABER: These days, you can get shrimp everywhere, any way you like, at any time of the day.

VOICEOVER: Sweet, spicy, savory! Enjoy it all. ‘Cause red lobster’s one and only endless shrimp is now. Endless choices, endless variety.

TWILLEY: But this utopia of endless shrimp in which we now live—it’s a pretty recent upgrade to American life.

GREENBERG: I would say if you were to look 50 years ago shrimp certainly wouldn’t be anywhere near the top of the top five seafoods consumed.

GRABER: To understand how shrimp became the most beloved of American seafood, we have to understand more about the shrimp itself. But I have to say, we’re so used to seeing these kind of pinkish whitish curls of seafood on top of our pasta that I think most of us have kind of forgotten how weird the actual animal is. I don’t want to harsh on the shrimp or anything, but—

TWILLEY: Shrimp have eyes on stalks!

GRABER: They really are these really odd looking bugs with a hard shell and with lots of tiny legs and yes, eyes on stalks floating around ahead of them.

TWILLEY: And like insects, there are lots of shrimp, all over.

GREENBERG: Shrimp are, are very, very everywhere. [LAUGH] I mean, they’re very much, they’re very adaptable, they’re very common. You can find them in Antarctica.

GRABER: There are about 4000 species in the world, but when it comes to size and ease of getting a hold of them, we only really eat a few of those.

TWILLEY: But are they shrimp or are they prawns? I’ve never really understood the difference between them, and that’s because as it turns out, there isn’t one. Both shrimp and prawn are just common terms for all the crustaceans we think of as shrimpy prawn things. And you can use them interchangeably.

GREENBERG: Pretty much. [LAUGH] I mean, common names and Latin names, they always diverge and there are always local colloquialisms. I don’t think that there’s a hard scientific difference between what some people call a prawn and what others call a shrimp.

GRABER: Prawn is a word more commonly used for these shrimpy things in the UK and other places in the Commonwealth, but in the US prawns tend to be the larger versions, like jumbo shrimp. But frankly, usually we just say jumbo shrimp.

TWILLEY: Whereas the word shrimp, which is a very old British word, originally just meant anything that was very tiny or unimportant—long before it became the name of a kind of seafood.

GRABER: Long story short, as we’ve said, prawns and shrimp are the same thing, even though many people on the internet will try to tell you they’re different. They’re not.

TWILLEY: But whether you call them prawns or shrimp, one of the things that sets these insectile creatures apart from other crustaceans is that under their hard shell is a layer of collagen. Collagen is the kind of ingredient you find in anti-aging creams, but in real life, it’s a sort of dense, more cartilage-like tissue. Shrimp molt off their shells several times during their life, and that collagen layer is basically their next shell in waiting

GRABER: And this fact is part of why we love to eat them. The collagen in their bodies gives shrimp a texture that’s a little more meaty than other kinds of seafood.

GREENBERG: They have much more of a, a bite resistance. Which leads to a mouthfeel that feels kind of pork-adjacent.

TWILLEY: That plus a quite neutral, not super fishy flavor makes them very easy to love.

GRABER: And so people who lived along the coasts where shrimp bred and were easy to catch, they did love to eat them.

TWILLEY: But obviously like most seafood, shrimp spoil pretty quickly. So before freezers and fridges existed, they had to be preserved somehow. A lot were fermented and turned into fish sauce, which we talked about in our ketchup episode.

GRABER: Or they were dried. If the weather wasn’t too humid, this was another great way to preserve shrimp. You might have seen dried shrimp still today in Asian seafood markets.

TWILLEY: And that’s actually how the commercial shrimp industry first got going in America, with dried shrimp.

GREENBERG: Some of the earliest shrimp fishermen in the United States were Chinese immigrants who came to San Francisco Bay and they pursued a shrimp that was native to San Francisco Bay, dried those shrimp, and sent them back to China.

GRABER: There was a huge dried shrimp industry in the Bay area in the late 1800s, but it got pretty much fished out, and the waters were also polluted during the Gold Rush. And so Asian immigrants moved to the Gulf of Mexico to take advantage of all the shrimp that thrive there.

TWILLEY: And they lived in the Mississippi delta, often in stilt houses on the bayou, surrounded by genuinely massive wooden platforms on which they could lay out all the shrimp they’d caught. And then everyone in the community would come over to quote, “dance the shrimp.” Which meant kind of shuffling around on top of them to pop them out of their shells.

GRABER: This might sound a little surprising that someone could dance on shrimp and then it’d still be edible and even more surprisingly, marketable. But the shrimp were first boiled and dried before the dancing took place, and the people doing the dancing wore special shoes or burlap bags over their shoes.

TWILLEY: The shuffling just sort of crushed the dried shells so they turned into powder, and then you would hang up your shrimp dancing shoes and sift out the powder from the shrimp using baskets. The powdered shells were actually used as fertilizer, and the dried shrimp were ready for sale and export.

GRABER: That was the first commercial shrimp industry in the Gulf of Mexico, but it was pretty small and seasonal. Because shrimp breed out in the open water and they only come close to shore at certain times of the year. That’s when people could throw out nets and catch them.

TWILLEY: Basically, until ships were motorized, fishermen couldn’t haul the big trawl nets you need to catch shrimp at sea. Diesel engines started becoming more common in the early 1900s, and at that point, canning had also been invented, and canned Gulf shrimp became a pretty sizable industry.

GRABER: But to most Americans, especially those who didn’t live along the coast, shrimp were still pretty weird. These new technologies meant there were shrimp being canned and shipped out to American households from the Gulf, but inland Americans had no idea what to do with them.

GREENBERG: The seafood marketers in the Gulf of Mexico really made a push to try and get people to eat shrimp, and that’s when the shrimp cocktail really emerges as this kind of national fancy food.

TWILLEY: It was the Jazz Age, and everyone was wearing cocktail dresses while they sipped cocktails out of cocktail glasses in cocktail lounges. And shrimp canners marketed the shrimp cocktail as the height of sophistication.

GRABER: After World War II, other technologies improved that allowed shrimp to be frozen and transported, and so fresh-tasting shrimp could be used in cocktails, not canned shrimp. But the shrimp cocktail itself remained super ritzy.

GREENBERG: I remember I had one friend, her father worked for MetLife, and they would have these big cocktail parties. And they would serve shrimp cocktail. And, the score of all scores was to get an invite to my friend Andrea’s father’s MetLife shrimp parties. And get your hands on some MetLife shrimp.

TWILLEY: Chowing down on some MetLife shrimp—I mean, now you’re living the dream. But as with all good things, there was a cost.

GRABER: And not just to MetLife for all those really expensive shrimp, because they were still pretty expensive at the time. But behind the scenes, things weren’t so pretty.

TWILLEY: In the super early days, the shrimp industry in the Gulf was kind of gnarly. There weren’t the labor laws we have today, so child labor was still common, and peeling fiddly shrimp was a task for tiny hands.

GRABER: In fact, entire families, poor families, shipped down from Baltimore to work in the shrimp processing facilities because locals didn’t want to work in the factories. Parents could be employed, and their kids could get hired there too.

TWILLEY: Back in the 19-teens, there was actually a national scandal over the conditions in these Gulf shrimp processing plants—kids were having their hands and feet eaten away by the enzymes in shrimp juice, they were working all hours without gloves or even shoes. And they were being paid a pittance, not even in actual money but in something called shrimp nickels that could only be spent in company stores.

GRABER: The shrimp factories weren’t unique in America at the time, this was kind of the state of most industrial labor in the early 1900s, to be honest, and it really was horrific. Fortunately there were labor activists around the country who changed things for the better, and this is true for the shrimp industry as well. The shrimp industry’s issues really helped inspire the National Child Labor Committee, and eventually America got rid of child labor and people started to wear gloves and shoes, and they received real wages for their work.

TWILLEY: Labor laws are great, but you know what’s really groovy? Shrimp peeling machines!

SHEP BAUMER: We have six peeling machines, and the shrimp go through the peeling process.

GRABER: I do love me some labor laws, but I have to say, shrimp peeling machines are actually pretty wild. We went to see some in person when we were in Louisiana.

BAUMER: We dump the shrimp onto a conveyor belt, right there.

TWILLEY: We met up with Shep Baumer, one of the owners of Bayou Shrimp Processors in Delcambre, Louisiana. He took us into a room that I can only describe as an indoor water park for dead shrimp—all around us, the shrimp were flowing from machine to machine, up conveyors and down water slides.

BAUMER: So, that’s the conveyor belt where the shrimp went up, and then they travel along a conveyor belt which runs along the back side of all of the peeling machines.

GRABER: The water was the thing that helped keep the shrimp moving along on the conveyor belts and it cleaned them too, and it’s water and pressure that loosen up the shell so it can be easily removed.

BAUMER: This machine is peeling mostly the middle of the shrimp. And then, it goes down to this machine, which is called the cleaner.This is, peeling the legs and throats off of the shrimp.

TWILLEY: And then, if our lucky shrimp friend is going to be deveined, which not all shrimp are, it goes to the next ride in the theme park, where things get really real.

BAUMER: We basically dump the shrimp into a tank. The shrimp go up the conveyor belt. And they slide down that… chute, bouncing against razor blades.

GRABER: Yes, razor blades. The shrimp were on a kind of zig zag track back and forth, literally as Shep says bouncing against razor blades, and somehow the only thing that gets sliced out is that thin tiny vein. It’s totally bizarre that it actually works. We have videos.

TWILLEY: This machine is honestly one of humanity’s greater achievements in my humble opinion. I could have watched it for hours.

BAUMER: And this is the shrimp coming out of our deveiner. So these shrimp were sent in, all with veins. And then you’re looking right here and you can see how all the veins have been removed.

GRABER: That’s amazing.

BAUMER: It really is amazing when you think that people used to sit here and do all of this by hand.

TWILLEY: Today it takes a whole room full of machines to get a shrimp ready for eating. But it all started with a teenager in Louisiana. The inventor of the world’s first shrimp peeling machine was just a kid, one of eight in a Louisiana shrimping family

GREENBERG: A guy named Lapeyre was, he was on a shrimp boat and he saw that when a rubber boot brushed up against a shrimp that the carapace came off.

GRABER: This was in the 1940s. And Lapeyre had quite the imagination.

GREENBERG: This is a guy who also invented airplane instruments. He was a kind of, a polymath kind of guy.He figured out that if you had properly set rubber rollers, set on a conveyor belt, that a shrimp when it passed through it would really, literally would suck the shell right off and shoot the meat out.

GRABER: That job is done by a combination of water and pressure today, but the principle is the same.

TWILLEY: His family helped him patent and commercialize the machine and it caught on fast in the Gulf.

GRABER: In only a few decades, the shrimp industry had cleaned up its labor act, thanks to new labor laws and super cool shrimp peeling machines. But they still had a few more issues to deal with. John Fallon is the director of sustainability and coastal conservation for the Audubon Nature Institute, and he’s based in New Orleans.

JOHN FALLON: So, I think Gulf shrimp has definitely not had the best reputation historically.

TWILLEY: Not the best is a little bit of an understatement. Starting in the 1970s, Gulf shrimpers were seen as turtle murderers. The issue was that the trawl nets used by shrimpers were catching things other than shrimp, namely lots of sea turtles. Enough turtles that every single species of sea turtle in the Northern Gulf of Mexico was listed as threatened or endangered.

GRABER: And so the US government worked with environmental groups and with shrimpers to develop a solution to the problem. That solution is called a TED, or a turtle excluder device.

FALLON: TEDs are a big grate that go into the net, and they have to be angled at a certain degree. And then what happens is anything that is small enough, like shrimp, will pass through the bars. And then things that are larger, primarily sea turtles or other large fish or sharks, they get stopped by the grate, and then there’s an opening that they’re able to swim out of.

TWILLEY: It took a while and some tweaking to get it to work well—to make it so that the turtles could get out but the shrimp stayed in—but by 1987, the US government made these turtle excluder devices mandatory on all shrimp boats.

GRABER: We met with shrimper Lance Nacio when we were in Louisiana, he was out kind of ahead of the TED issue. He was one of the early shrimpers to help refine the design and voluntarily put TEDs on his boats. He told us that not all shrimpers were on board at the beginning.

LANCE NACIO: It’s very controversial. I sit on the shrimp task force and, you know, it was a big fight to try and stop these turtle excluder devices. They thought they were going to be put out of business, you know. Because when they first came out with it, there was a lot more shrimp loss.

GRABER: The first design only reduced turtle catch by about 30 percent, but shrimp loss could be as high as fifty percent.

NACIO: But, you know, over time they figured out how to tweak it and make it better. So, right now, I mean, the shrimp loss is nominal compared to what it does for, you know, the cleaning up the catch.

FALLON: I think it’s important too, the federal government puts this in, but shrimpers made TEDs work practically too. And a lot of them were thoughtful in the design and practical application of it. And so, you know, we’ve seen them make the effort because they don’t want to harm turtles.

TWILLEY: And it seems to have been well worth the effort in terms of turtle numbers.

FALLON: We’ve seen an increase in those populations. So there’s a direct correlation to that.

GRABER: There are still issues for Gulf turtles, turtles and their eggs are sometimes poached and there are threats to nesting beaches. But turtles are rarely being caught in shrimp nets anymore and the numbers of nesting turtles look like they’re stabilizing or going up, which is good news. The TEDs are basically working.

TWILLEY: All these regulations, combined with restrictions on the number of shrimp fishing licenses available, have ended up being really effective. John works for an environmental nonprofit not a fishery and he told us that in his opinion, Gulf shrimping is really pretty sustainable these days.

GRABER: But while all this was going on in the Gulf of Mexico, something was being invented half a world away that was set to turn the entire shrimp industry on its head. That story, after the break.


TWILLEY: For thousands of years, especially in Asia, shrimp-loving people had been doing what they could to make shrimp more abundant and easy to catch.

GRABER: Basically they looked at where shrimp were already abundant. Shrimp spend part of their lives along the coast, in swamps. In Asia, they’re often found in mangrove forests, these swampy forests with trees that have roots that look like knobby knees poking up out of the water. People cleared out small ponds in the mangroves where they’d feed baby shrimp with food scraps and use fences and nets to keep out predators, and keep in the shrimp.

TWILLEY: It wasn’t really shrimp farming, more like shrimp ranching. And the shrimp were definitely still on their own when it came to breeding. But that all changed, starting in 1930.

GREENBERG: The first place that it happened was in Japan with this creature that was called the Kuruma prawn.

GRABER: These particular shrimp were famous for being used in a dish called dancing shrimp, where they were doused with alcohol, and when that alcohol was set on fire the shrimp wiggled and looked like they were dancing. It was a pricey dish, and those shrimp were quite valuable. So there was a financial incentive to figuring out how to raise them on a farm.

TWILLEY: But the costs of all the R&D required to actually farm shrimp successfully were also pretty high. It took decades just to figure out how to get shrimp to spawn in captivity. Before this one Japanese scientist, Dr. Motosaku Fujinaga, got going with his research, no one even knew what shrimp larvae looked like, much less what to feed them. Fujinaga gradually worked out that female shrimp wouldn’t produce eggs unless they were given sea worms to eat, whereas young shrimp only seemed to thrive if they were fed squid pellets.

GRABER: His foundational research on needing to feed shrimp different foods at different life stages provided the basis for domesticating other species of shrimp. And one of his graduate students went on to work with the tiger prawn. It grew particularly well in the type of crowded shrimp ponds that would make the most sense for commercial shrimp farming, but they were having a hard time getting the females to spawn.

GREENBERG: I don’t even know how they stumbled upon this, but they found that—you know, shrimp have eye stalks. Their, their eyes are sort of on the end of these stalks. And they figured out that if you clipped off one eye stalk, the shrimp would suddenly become fecund and able to reproduce.

TWILLEY: Which is super creepy. But apparently very effective. The other shrimp species that eventually got domesticated was something called the Pacific white leg shrimp, which originally lived along the Pacific coast from Mexico to Peru. The white leg had a lot of qualities that made it a winner for would-be shrimp farmers—it naturally doesn’t mind crowded conditions, it actually likes kind of murky water, and it isn’t aggressive with other shrimp.

GRABER: Finally, after decades of this kind of trial and error, the mysteries of shrimp farming seemed to have been solved, and by the early 1990s the Pacific white leg shrimp was THE shrimp being farmed all around the world. And shrimp farming in general just took off. Which had a pretty immediate impact on what Americans eat.

GREENBERG: The price certainly plummeted and the consumption just soared.

TWILLEY: This is all economics. Take a poor Thai rice farmer, if he switched to farming shrimp instead, he would literally multiply his annual income by about ten. The World Bank immediately seized on shrimp farming as a way to bring Southeast Asian farmers out of poverty, they started dishing out loans to help them get in on the shrimp farming boom.

GRABER: And then in America, shrimp were making a lot of money for restaurant owners, too. Shrimp had been seen as fancy, highly desirable food, so once the prices plummeted and you could put shrimp on everything, people loved the idea: the new farmed shrimp were half the price of what they’d been before. So restaurant owners could suggest you add shrimp to your pasta for a few extra dollars, they’d STILL make bank on a 300 percent markup.

TWILLEY: It was a golden time for shrimp. And Americans ate it up! Between the 1980s and today, American shrimp consumption quadrupled. Back in the early 2000s, the New York Times ran a survey to try to find out why Americans were eating so much shrimp. Obviously, the answer they arrived at was the economics, but lots of people wrote in to say they thought it was probably due to the blockbuster movie Forrest Gump.

BUBBA: Shrimp is the fruit of the sea. You can barbecue it, boil it, broil it. Bake it. Sautée it. There’s uh, shrimp kabobs. Shrimp Creole. Shrimp gumbo. Pan-fried. Deep fried. Stir fried.

GRABER: Maybe the movie helped things along a little, it certainly did launch an entire new chain called Bubba Gump Shrimp Company…

BUBBA: Shrimp soup, shrimp stew, shrimp salad…

GRABER: But basically all the restaurants that could jump on the shrimp bandwagon, they did.

MAN: There’s a lotta reasons why we came to Sizzler for all you can eat shrimp. The shrimp are really good.

VOICEOVER: Kingfish restaurants proudly presents, shrimp as you like it! Cool, delectable shrimp cocktail, served up with our special tangy sauce.

ANNOUNCER: At Long John Silver’s you’ll be hooked on our six dollar shrimp baskets. Whether they’re fried to golden perfection, or sizzling on a grill.

TWILLEY: But like all bargains, this all you can eat shrimp fiesta was too good to be true in the end.

GREENBERG: The advertisements go shrimp, shrimp, shrimp, shrimp, shrimp, but it should really be mangrove, mangrove, mangrove, mangrove. Shrimp farms tend to be sited where mangrove forests are. And mangroves are really important ecosystems, they do really, really important stuff for shore stabilization, for water quality, for creating habitat. And quite often what shrimp farmers would do is they would go into a mangrove forest, clear the forest, create a pond, put the shrimp in there.

GRABER: And just clearing mangroves to make a pond for shrimp wasn’t necessarily a one-time deal. Because of disease.

URBINA: You put a lot of animals in a small space, they’re living in their feces. I don’t know how else to put it. And they get sick, they get infections.

TWILLEY: Paul said mostly, once the shrimp got sick, farmers would just cull them and give up on that pond altogether, to keep the disease from spreading.

GREENBERG: So there were thousands and thousands of ponds that were just simply abandoned. With the mangroves destroyed. So you’ve basically removed the coastal protection, the ecosystem benefits of those mangrove forests, not restored them, and moved on to create more ponds. And so throughout, particularly the ‘90s, this was really a bad trend that we got into.

TWILLEY: In some estuaries, as much as 80 percent of the mangrove forests were destroyed. Overall, the countries that got heavily into shrimp farming like Thailand and Vietnam, they lost between a quarter and nearly a half of their mangroves.

GRABER: But the environment wasn’t the only hidden cost of shrimp farming. People were getting hurt too. One important thing to understand is that In the ocean, shrimp will eat just anything floating around, whether it’s plant matter or little bits of dead fish.

TWILLEY: But in these newfangled shrimp farms, the shrimp can’t just graze on sea grass and nibble on whatever floats by. Instead the farmers feed them frequent servings of ground up fish, and that fish has to be caught.

GRABER: These fish are tiny little forage fish, and they’re caught way out in the middle of the ocean, with basically no oversight from any government. Ian Urbina has reported on what it’s like to work on one of those fishing boats.

URBINA: This is straight out of Dickens. You know, this is like something of a different century, these boats. They have a lot of child labor. The conditions are dirty. The days are impossibly long, 20 hours.

GRABER: And the workplace itself makes everything about it even worse. These boats are typically filthy. There are lots of machines and sound and smells and noise, AND the ship is constantly pitching and moving all around you. Up and down, side to side, it’s super slippery. It’s a nightmare.

URBINA: So put yourself on the Dickensian factory floor with crazy whirling machines, working 20 hour shifts with really poor rations. So you’re probably sick, if not from seasick, then from food sickness. And now make it middle of the night. And now have the floor going up and down and side to side. And that’s what these working conditions are like. And you’re working six, seven days a week, and you’re on a two year contract. You’re not going back to shore probably for two years. And beatings and violence are fairly commonplace on these vessels. So, this is what we’re dealing with, in some of these fleets. It’s a brutality I’ve never seen in any other industry.

TWILLEY: Ian has spent time on these boats, he’s written about it in his book The Outlaw Ocean, and the descriptions of the conditions aboard are genuinely disgusting. The stories of the people who end up working there are equally horrifying.

GRABER: They’ve often paid money to even be able to get jobs like these, and that gets them into something called debt bondage, where they’re supposedly working off that debt. In reality it means they’re often not paid, and also not allowed to leave. This is basically modern-day slavery.

TWILLEY: As if that all isn’t bad enough, there typically isn’t enough fresh food on board, so vitamin deficiency diseases are common. They don’t have antibiotics so cuts get infected and get gross. It’s just unimaginably grim.

GRABER: At the same as Ian was reporting on what was happening far offshore, where shrimp food was being fished, journalists at the Guardian and at the AP were reporting on the conditions at the shrimp farms themselves on shore in Thailand. And they found that the working conditions were abusive and unsafe, there was child labor, and people were working in similar forms of debt bondage—in other words, slavery.

GREENBERG: When this story broke, first in the Guardian and then in the Associated Press and then later with Ian’s stuff. Thailand had been a real focus of a lot of those queries, and were under a lot of international pressure, to reform their labor systems.

TWILLEY: Thailand had been *the* big exporter of shrimp to America, but after all this bad press, the industry moved.

URBINA: These days, the largest portion of shrimp consumed in the U.S. comes from India. That too is a pretty recent development. Over a third of the shrimp that Americans eat comes from India.

GRABER: In fact, if you’re talking about pre-peeled shrimp, it’s a full SIXTY percent. So did things get better when shrimp farms moved to India? That’s coming up, after the break.


JOSH FARINELLA: It’s um, middle of the night, my phone, I get a WhatsApp message from one of the managers who was on site. He’s telling me that one of the migrant workers is running through the water treatment portion of the plant because there’s no security there. The security guard at the main gate wouldn’t let her out. So yeah, that was, first red flag.

TWILLEY: This is a recording that Ian’s Outlaw Ocean Project made of the testimony of a guy called Josh Farinella. Josh has been in the seafood industry for more than a decade. He started working at an Indian shrimp processing plant in 2023, as plant manager, and almost right away, he realized things weren’t right.

GRABER: Josh contacted Ian and became a whistleblower, and his story was just released last month. He reported on what was going on at the plant, he gathered all sorts of documentation for Ian—

URBINA: A massive trove of documents and emails and Zoom meetings and recorded calls and security footage, everything you can imagine, and handed over to us. So we got a very detailed look at this facility

TWILLEY: At this point in our story, it’s maybe not going to be an enormous surprise to hear that Josh’s evidence showed that labor abuses were the norm in this shrimp processing plant. There was overcrowding, low pay, and some evidence of debt bondage.

FARINELLA: We have 650 resident workers. So we’d already been paying 350 rupees a day, a hundred rupees a day less than minimum wage. They work seven days a week. They have not had a day off in over a year now. And they aren’t able to just leave on their own.

GRABER: Josh didn’t gather any evidence of child labor, but another major report that also came out last month called Hidden Harvest, by a group called the Corporate Accountability Lab, they also investigated the cost of shrimp farming in India, and they did find child labor throughout the industry.

TWILLEY: They also uncovered evidence of workers on shrimp farms handling hazardous chemicals without protective gear, and workers in the processing plants suffering from frostbite and rashes from handling the shrimp all day, again without the right protective equipment. There were no groovy shelling machines at Josh’s plant, or other plants in India—just lots of very badly paid people, many abused, some kids.

GRABER: Indian shrimp ends up all over America, at restaurants like Olive Garden, at restaurant suppliers like Sysco and US Foods, and at grocery stores like Krogers, Safeway, Whole Foods 365, Walmart, Costco, Aldi, literally everywhere.

TWILLEY: What’s especially messed up about this is that American companies are supposed to make sure that the shrimp they sell meets American standards.

FARINELLA: As an example, before Aldi buys our product, they have to verify that we have certain certifications in place, and this should cover everything that you could possibly want covered. As far as food safety, quality, legality, and authenticity.

TWILLEY: That verification takes the form of in-person audits, so why aren’t those auditors reporting all these problems?

FARINELLA: The problem is they only see what you allow them to see. We use two external peeling sheds. They’re, I mean, they’re literally sheds. They’re off site. They are unregulated. They’re generally off the books. They have none of the good manufacturing practices. Certainly no auditors coming through there.

GRABER: The off-site peeling sheds are totally hidden, and that’s where a lot of the work is actually done. The conditions there are horrendous. At Josh’s plant, the bathrooms at the off-site sheds had no toilet paper and no running water for workers to wash their hands—and they’re handling food.

URBINA: The off site peeling shed he went to was just open air, and kind of because it was summer, it was pretty hot, you know. So it’s a hot place, you’re having to peel, and you’ve got to keep up a certain pace for reasons of spoilage.

TWILLEY: And inevitably, some stuff does go bad. At that point, the harm is not just being done to Indian workers—it’s also threatening American shrimp eaters.

GRABER: Spoilage and contamination is one thing, but there’s also the problem of illegal antibiotics that are used to keep the shrimp healthy in the overcrowded and dirty ponds they’re grown in.

FARINELLA: Shrimp with antibiotics, to toe the company line, would be illegal, not to be shipped. In reality, we ship it on a regular basis.

GRABER: We’ve talked about this on Gastropod before, the overuse of antibiotics in animals for food is helping contribute to antibiotic resistance. And that means the drugs we have to treat diseases don’t always work anymore, and people can die. It’s a real problem.

TWILLEY: Which is why in theory imported food is supposed to be tested for things like antibiotics and other chemicals that are illegal in the US.

URBINA: In Europe, 50 percent, five-zero percent of shrimp that comes into Europe, is checked for drugs. So antifungals, antibiotics. In the U. S., less than one percent is checked. And we import more, way more, shrimp than Europe does.

GRABER: All of this is shocking, but to be honest, another super depressing thing is that the company that Josh was working at was in the process of applying for and probably getting approved for a label called BAP, or best aquaculture practices.

RBINA: And that is meant to imply that they’ve been held to a higher standard on labor.

TWILLEY: But as Ian’s reporting and the Hidden Harvest report show, these kinds of labels clearly don’t actually mean very much. The Hidden Harvest report concluded that labels like this function as quote little more than marketing ploys.

GRABER: In the wake of these two recent investigations, Congress is already meeting to talk about the problems with our shrimp supply. But the challenge is that if pressure isn’t constant, it’s easy for the situation to slide. Ian said this is just what’s happening in Thailand.

URBINA: Thailand began trying to impose a whole bunch of reforms, got a lot of pressure from major Western companies, buyers of seafood. And, and some seem to be happening. What I hear now is it’s all getting rolled back. And that’s largely because the attention of media and, and, and advocacy has shifted to other places.

TWILLEY: Meanwhile, back in the Gulf, American shrimpers have been dealing with this cheap farmed shrimp flooding into the country since the 90s. And they’ve not been super into it.

GREENBERG: Oh, I mean it—well, it ticked them off, first of all. And really got them in a lather. Huge amounts of shrimp poured into the market, at very much below the cost of what it takes to bring a wild shrimp to market.

GRABER: And so it’s hard to make it as an American shrimper these days.


GRABER: We visited Lance Nacio as he was packing up shrimp that he’d frozen on his boat. He often ships directly to consumers and sells at farmers markets.

NACIO: I’m the third generation. And my son is the captain of my boat. He’s out right now. He’s the fourth generation.


NACIO: So it’s a 20 pound box of 16-20 plate-frozen shrimp. And 16-20 means how many shrimp are in a pound. So the smaller the number, the bigger the shrimp. So these are Gulf white shrimp. These are like, the preferred size. This 16 to 20 is like my best seller. Something we probably produce the most of is this size here.

TWILLEY: Lance is still fishing for shrimp, but he told us that all around him, his neighbors and former colleagues—they’re giving up.

NACIO: What I’ve seen in my lifetime of shrimping is that, we’re losing fishermen, we’re losing businesses, we’re losing a working waterfront. You know, because we can’t sustain it, with the cheap dockside prices.

FALLON: Yeah. Fishing used to be a multi generational family business, right? You could pass it down. And what we’ve really seen, over the last, I would say, 10 to 20 years, is that, that’s no longer the case. We’re not seeing new people enter into the fishery anymore, because they don’t see much of a future in it, or it’s financially not feasible, and so… really, I would say in the past year, it’s the worst I’ve ever seen it. And it’s the worst many have ever seen it.

TWILLEY: The price for shrimp has been dragged down so low by the farmed product that Gulf shrimpers literally can’t sell their catch at that price and still cover their costs. So the restaurants and grocery stores end up buying the cheaper imported shrimp.

GRABER: More than 90 percent of all shrimp eaten in the US today are imported farm raised shrimp. Even in New Orleans, which is just over an hour away from where Lance docks his boat—even in fancy restaurants in the French Quarter, the shrimp on the menu, like shrimp Creole that nearly every place serves—it’s mostly imported.

TWILLEY: And this is why Lance’s colleagues are quitting. But everyone we spoke to said that if fishermen carry on getting out of the business at the rate they are quitting right now, it will literally only be a matter of years until there isn’t an active shrimp fishery in Louisiana anymore.

FALLON: We’re at a, really, we’re at a breaking point here. Where if people don’t support this fishery and buy the product, which is the number one thing that you can do to help support it. Like, I don’t know what it’s going to look like in another ten years. That’s how bad it is.

TWILLEY: This is obviously sad for the fishermen and their families and communities, and it’s a cultural blow to the region because shrimp has traditionally been such a big part of Louisiana’s history and cuisine. But, bigger picture, it’s also hurting us, America’s shrimp eaters.

GRABER: The American fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico are regulated, there are only a certain number of shrimpers who are allowed to go out, the shrimp are monitored to make sure the stocks are still healthy, which they are. The shrimpers follow labor laws. They use all sorts of gear to keep out bycatch and turtles.

TWILLEY: The result is shrimp you can feel good about eating. John works for Audubon, he’s an environmentalist, and he is all in on Gulf shrimp.

FALLON: I would feel very confident in recommending it as a sustainable resource, and… we don’t lack shrimp. Like, from a sustainability perspective, like that is a very sustainable fishery. In terms of the biology. We pride ourselves on having well managed, sustainable fisheries. You don’t have a fishery if there are no fishermen. They have to be able to sustain their jobs and their market. Or else, what are you doing this for?

TWILLEY: What is the point of making shrimping in the Gulf sustainable, if we’re then not going to eat those shrimp? On a political level, we as Americans have voted for sustainable fisheries, but on an economic level, we keep voting against them.

GRABER: We asked everyone we spoke to what consumers can do about all these issues, and one thing they all agreed on is that if you want to eat shrimp, eat local. This is something we often say, but for shrimp, if we don’t make that change, we may not even have the option in the future.

URBINA: You hear from a lot of different folks, food researchers, supply chain researchers, labor advocates. Lot of different folks. That you really should try to buy local, for lots of reasons. The supply chain’s shorter. It’s easier to track it. Traveling less distances. There are tighter regulations here than there are many other places. So to the extent that you can buy stuff that’s not using really long chains, where it gets harder and harder to impose rules, you should.

TWILLEY: One of the things Paul wants to see is federal and state money being used to buy domestic shrimp rather than the imported kind.

GREENBERG: I think there’s a lot of opportunities to get wild caught American seafood into institutional places like schools. And to me, it’s like a no-brainer to get American seafood to American students, and into our cafeterias.

TWILLEY: Paul’s point is that federal funding, lots and lots of taxpayer money, is currently being used to buy farmed shrimp for school lunches and military cafeteries. Why not just use that money to support a domestic sustainable fishery instead? It’s an easy win.

GRABER: But for individuals, when you’re at the store looking to pick up some shrimp, it’s a little complicated. Sometimes companies will splash an American name and even an American flag on the packaging, but that doesn’t mean the shrimp comes from America.

FALLON: Because right now you can label your seafood—you can be a foreign company and call it USA shrimp.

TWILLEY: And then in tiny little letters on the back of this USA brand shrimp, it will say it was farmed in India or whatever. And actually, there’s even a trickier loophole. Any shrimp that is processed in the US—so, like if you add breading or seasoning in an American facility—that can legally be labeled as “made in the US,” or “product of the US,” even if the shrimp was originally raised in Thailand or Vietnam or Ecuador.

GRABER: So you really have to look for labels that very specifically say wild American shrimp. If it does, it’s likely from the Gulf. There are some other places around the US that catch shrimp—occasionally in New England we’ll get Maine shrimp. On the west coast there’s a pink shrimp fishery and spot shrimp in Alaska. But 85 percent of American wild shrimp is Gulf shrimp.

TWILLEY: And if you’re in a restaurant and it doesn’t specifically say where the shrimp come from, you should ask. If they don’t know where it’s from, you can be sure that you’re being served the kind that’s farmed and imported.

GRABER: Remember Bubba Gump Shrimp, the company that was founded on the wave of Forrest Gump shrimp-based enthusiasm?

NACIO: Yeah, it’s a national chain that has American flags and domestic shrimp boats in it, but all they use is imported shrimp.

TWILLEY: Lance’s top tip is to go directly to the source.

NACIO: And the whole thing is, you should get to know your fishermen and know his practices. That’s the best way.

TWILLEY: Lance sells directly to consumers through his website, so do other American shrimp fishers. So that is a great option for your shrimp fix. But also, maybe, you don’t need to get that shrimp fix quite as often.

GRABER: Because even if we in the US started getting all our shrimp from fishermen in Louisiana, or even all from American waters, there is literally no way that American fishermen could meet the demand that the super cheap, unregulated, unsafe farmed shrimp has created. Gulf shrimp can’t and shouldn’t supply all-you-can-eat shrimp buffets. There shouldn’t *be* all you can eat shrimp buffets.

TWILLEY: Paul says shrimp could and should go back to being more of a treat, more like it was at his friend Andrea’s dad’s MetLife parties.

GREENBERG: So, yes, eat American shrimp if it happens to come your way, but don’t skew your whole plate so that [LAUGH] the majority of it is shrimp. And, you know. I often like to say, if you’re thinking about cocktails, why not also think about half shells?

GRABER: If you listen to Gastropod, you know we are always thinking about oysters, and when we can eat them next. We hate to brag, but maybe everyone should be more like us, and make oysters their appetizer of choice.

GREENBERG: So, you know, if you’re going to have a shrimp cocktail one day, have half a dozen oysters another day.


TWILLEY: That’s advice we can always get behind. Make mine two dozen.

GRABER: Thanks this episode to Paul Greenberg, Ian Urbina, John Fallon, Shep Baumer, and Lance Nacio, we have links to their books, reporting, and shrimp on our website, Thanks also as always to our fantastic producer Claudia Geib.

TWILLEY: And happy birthday to Gastropod fan and supporter Cayce! We’ll be back in two weeks with a brand new episode—’til then!