"Shrimp lovers don't need to crash a fancy party to enjoy premium, seasoned-to-perfection shrimp," announced a Taco Bell press release last year. The chain was heralding its "Pacific Shrimp Taco," which featured a half-dozen "premium shrimp" for just $2.79.
Marketing campaigns like Taco Bell's, along with Red Lobster's periodic "Endless Shrimp" promotions, crystallize shrimp's transformation from special-treat food to everyday cheap fare. What happened? The answer lies in the rise of factory-scale shrimp farms over the last generation. Twenty years ago, 80 percent of shrimp consumed here came from domestic wild fisheries, with imports supplying the rest. Today, we've more than flipped those numbers: the United States imports 90 percent of the shrimp consumed here. We now bring in a staggering 1.2 billion pounds of it annually, mainly from farms in Asia. Between 1995 and 2008, the inflation-adjusted price of wild-caught Gulf shrimp plunged 30 percent.
It turns out, not surprisingly, that plates mounded with cheap shrimp float on a veritable sea of ecological and social trouble. In his excellent 2008 book Bottomfeeder: How to Eat Ethically in a World of Vanishing Seafood, the Canadian journalist Taras Grescoe took a hard look at the Asian operations that supply our shrimp. His conclusion: "The simple fact is, if you're eating cheap shrimp today, it almost certainly comes from a turbid, pesticide- and antibiotic-filled, virus-laden pond in the tropical climes of one of the world's poorest nations."