Tuesday, 4 September 2012
Day 521: Bangkok again
Antonia and I have arrived back in Bangkok. Took a taxi from the airport to the same hotel we stayed in a couple months ago. Flight from Denpasar went without a hitch.
On the plane, we sat next to this Thai gentleman who runs a prawn processing operation near Bangkok. He is one of the suppliers to Walmart, Albersons and Saveway in the US. If you've eaten frozen shrimp in the US from a major food store, it's possible you've eaten some of this man's shrimp his company processed!
I must admit that I have long wanted to meet someone in the shrimp packing industry. I've heard some bad rumors about how shrimp are produced. It's so difficult to get good information about where our food actually comes from. It does worry me.
On the 4 hour flight, this man explained to me how tiger prawns are grown and get to the grocer around the world. I was pretty impressed at the level of control he described. I had often imagined the origin of seafood from Asia to be sort of dubious but it's apparently quite controlled. I won't say things are perfect but it's a lot better than I had imagined.
There were some things he said which were quite interesting like that they do not sit there and pump antibiotics or hormones into the water. These things cost money which the farmers don't have. In fact, the opposite is true, they use a lot of natural techniques to keep things clean. He explained one technique to me where they use a "probiotic" enzyme (I didn't catch which one) which keeps bacteria at bay. If shrimp are not growing, they harvest them small, there's still a market for them.
He told me he packages an organic line of shrimp which are relatively expensive. The reason they're expensive is a paperwork issue. In fact the shrimp are the same as the non-organically certified variety! He is genuinely surprised that people are willing to pay the extra money for what he considered mostly enrichment for the certifier organizations. The difference is that the farmers who certify their shrimp farms undergo a costly certification process which they must continue to pay (or loose the certification and have to start all over again) and thus they have to pass this cost on to consumers. He admitted that some of the testing is not appropriate for this area and probably other tests are missing. The organic label on food is a little misleading in this way. The high cost of organic food (at least with shrimp) is not at all associated with lower yields due to organic farming methods!
Are things perfect? No, I doubt it. He did say some things which I found a little disturbing. They feed shirmp a mixture of ground up shrimp shells and soy probably other things they use for protein. The exact mix varies depending on what feed companies mix up that day. I think some more info on the shrimp food would be interesting.
He is trying to get his farmers to keep more paper records. Some do and some don't. It's a long term learning process. He is trying to show how keeping records helps the farmer recover from costly mistakes like loosing whole lots of shrimp and not knowing why.
He's very open to people coming in and inspect the process. He has this idea of bringing in essentially "wwoofers" (though he didn't know that term) onto the farms to see the process in action. "Wwoofing" is a term used to describe people who go and volunteer or take jobs on farms in exchange for room and board. (see http://www.wwoof.org/history.asp).
He very kindly invited us to come stay with him. Maybe we will see him again in the future.
And lastly, a question I love to ask farmers is "do you eat what you sell?" and his answer was emphatically yes.