Some nukes with your salmon?

Despite all the hype about local foods, for better or worse, we’re now dependent on a global food supply chain.  We have fresh vegetables and herbs all winter.  Olive oil, chocolate, cheese and coffee come from far-flung countries across the oceans.  Barring the occasional outbreak of an infectious disease from contaminated produce, the food import system usually works fine.  We have a vast variety of foods to choose from in the average grocery store, year round.  It’s easy to get complacent about this abundance; why poke around behind the scenes looking for problems.  But someone did just that recently, and found that a very popular food is being processed by slave labor.  Not just slave labor, but labor that financially benefits North Korea.

The Associated Press sent investigators to China recently to look into reports of North Korean slave labor used to process salmon and other fish products that are exported to markets in the US and other developed countries.  They found North Korean laborers living in highly controlled conditions, working in fish processing factories.  It’s estimated that 50,000-100,00 North Koreans are sent to work in other countries.  Most of their “pay” is sent back to NK and used to fund government programs, such as nuclear weapons.

Salmon and other fish products sent to the US from these processing centers have gone to Walmart and the parent company of Trader Joe’s.  When presented with the evidence, seafood distributors took steps to investigate their supply chains.  In the US, it’s illegal for anyone to import any products, including food, made by North Koreans anywhere in the world.  But of course, it’s not always possible to know who is processing your salmon.  Until the AP uncovered this situation, Walmart and others were selling salmon to Americans, funding North Korea.

I’ve written about slave labor in the fish industry before.  South East Asia is notorious for using slave labor in shrimp processing.  I’ve stopped eating any shrimp unless it’s specifically labeled as coming from the US Gulf Coast or some other known local source.  Grocery chains and distributors try to verify that shrimp is not from slave labor sources, but how do you really know unless you travel to the source and follow your packages of shrimp all the way to your plate?  Now do I have to stop eating salmon that isn’t wild caught from Alaska?  Possibly not.  There are reputable salmon sources.  Salmon fish farming can be a reliable source; I’ve had very nice farmed salmon from Scotland, for example.  But many people object to the whole idea of fish farming, for environmental reasons.

This issue is complicated by the fact that salmon has a huge health halo.  We’re all told to eat fish twice a week, and people are aware that salmon is especially healthy because it’s high in omega-3 fats.  If you’re a price-conscious twice-a-week salmon eater, it’s possible you’ve unknowingly helped fund NK’s nuclear weapons program.  Talk about environmental impact of a food!

What to do?

If you don’t eat much fish or don’t particularly like salmon anyway, you might not need to do much.

The NK slave laborers are also used to process other fish products, such as crab and squid, so it’s possible that any imported fish, particularly from Asia, is a potential risk.  Given that it’s a federal crime to import products made by North Koreans, we might assume that US-based companies would be vigilant about checking supply chains.  But they can be fooled or misled.  Buy local fish, meaning your “local” oceans, lakes, rivers and streams.  Alaskan salmon, lobster from New England, shrimp from the Gulf Coast, etc.  Fish farms are another option.  In fact, given the sorry state of ocean fisheries anyway, fish farms are going to be the future of fish supplies.  They might be located in oceans, or they might be land-based operations, with the fish growing in special tanks.  This eliminates environmental concerns, such as fish escaping into the wild or spreading exotic diseases to wild fish.

What about omega-3 fatty acids?  Yes those are critical for health.  And yes salmon is a good source, along with herring, sardines and mackerel.  If you rely on salmon or other fish for omega-3, you can look for stores that verify their sources.  Or you can by-pass salmon entirely and use omega-3 supplements.  Some supplements are sourced from countries in Scandinavia, not known for importing labor from North Korea.  Some are sourced from algae.  One source I avoid completely is krill oil.  Krill is essential to the food chain for marine life, but factory ships are suctioning it up to be processed for human consumption.  What are the whales and penguins and fish supposed to do?

The take away message: your food choices are increasingly loaded with political and humanitarian and environmental baggage.  It’s the price we pay for enjoying a global food supply chain.

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