Traditional recipes

Police in China Investigate Gelatin-Plumped Shrimp

Police in China Investigate Gelatin-Plumped Shrimp

The shrimp at the market are smaller than they appear

Wikimedia/Frank C. Müller

A seafood vendor was caught allegedly filling shrimp with gelatin to make them weigh more and look more delicious.

Police in China are investigating a seafood seller who may have come up with a sneaky, and pretty disgusting, way of increasing his profits after a customer said he sold her shrimp that had been pumped full of gelatin.

According to Shanghaiist, this new food scandal comes out of Zhejiang, where a young woman was preparing some shrimp when she discovered that her future dinner had been stuffed full of something decidedly not shrimplike.

The woman said the head came off one of the shrimp, and when it did a clear blob of jelly-like goo fell out. Wisely, she decided not to eat it. Instead she took it to the Internet, where people have been guessing at what the gel could possibly be. Most seem to be leaning toward gelatin, which could have been stuffed into the shrimp to make them weigh more and look plump and delicious, but some people have suggested the goop could be adhesive plastic glass. Gelatin isn’t looking so bad after all.

After news got out, the authorities began an investigation of the seafood vendor. He says he bought the shrimp from another seafood vendor, claiming to be innocent of any shrimp-tampering.

5 Facts that Will Make You Think Twice about Eating Imported, Farm-Raised Shrimp

When it comes to imported, farm-raised shrimp, you might be getting a side of human rights abuses and environmental woes.

Photo Credit: Kirill Zakabluk / Shutterstock

Shrimp is tasty, easy-to-find and downright seductive bathed in a buttery sauce. But before you serve your lover some scampi tonight, be sure to buy these bite-sized crustaceans from a safe, sustainable source. That’s because the imported, farm-raised shrimp that Americans eat might come at a huge human and environmental cost. Whether you’re against forced labor or clear-cutting forests — or just don’t want unapproved antibiotics in your food — here are five reasons why you should seek out shrimp from responsible farms and fisheries this Valentine’s Day.

Revealed: Asian slave labour producing prawns for supermarkets in US, UK

Slaves forced to work for no pay for years at a time under threat of extreme violence are being used in Asia in the production of seafood sold by major US, British and other European retailers, the Guardian can reveal.

A six-month investigation has established that large numbers of men bought and sold like animals and held against their will on fishing boats off Thailand are integral to the production of prawns (commonly called shrimp in the US) sold in leading supermarkets around the world, including the top four global retailers: Walmart, Carrefour, Costco and Tesco.

The investigation found that the world's largest prawn farmer, the Thailand-based Charoen Pokphand (CP) Foods, buys fishmeal, which it feeds to its farmed prawns, from some suppliers that own, operate or buy from fishing boats manned with slaves.

Men who have managed to escape from boats supplying CP Foods and other companies like it told the Guardian of horrific conditions, including 20-hour shifts, regular beatings, torture and execution-style killings. Some were at sea for years some were regularly offered methamphetamines to keep them going. Some had seen fellow slaves murdered in front of them.

Fifteen migrant workers from Burma and Cambodia also told how they had been enslaved. They said they had paid brokers to help them find work in Thailand in factories or on building sites. But they had been sold instead to boat captains, sometimes for as little as £250.

"I thought I was going to die," said Vuthy, a former monk from Cambodia who was sold from captain to captain. "They kept me chained up, they didn't care about me or give me any food … They sold us like animals, but we are not animals – we are human beings."

Another trafficking victim said he had seen as many as 20 fellow slaves killed in front of him, one of whom was tied, limb by limb, to the bows of four boats and pulled apart at sea.

"We'd get beaten even if we worked hard," said another. "All the Burmese, [even] on all the other boats, were trafficked. There were so many of us [slaves] it would be impossible to count them all."

CP Foods – a company with an annual turnover of $33bn (£20bn) that brands itself as "the kitchen of the world" – sells its own-brand prawn feed to other farms, and supplies international supermarkets, as well as food manufacturers and food retailers, with frozen or cooked prawns and ready-made meals. It also sells raw prawn materials for food distributors.

In addition to Walmart, Carrefour, Costco and Tesco, the Guardian has identified Aldi, Morrisons, the Co-operative and Iceland as customers of CP Foods. They all sell frozen or cooked prawns, or ready meals such as prawn stir fry, supplied by CP Foods and its subsidiaries. CP Foods admits that slave labour is part of its supply chain.

"We're not here to defend what is going on," said Bob Miller, CP Foods' UK managing director. "We know there's issues with regard to the [raw] material that comes in [to port], but to what extent that is, we just don't have visibility."

The supply chain works in this way: Slave ships plying international waters off Thailand scoop up huge quantities of "trash fish", infant or inedible fish. The Guardian traced this fish on landing to factories where it is ground down into fishmeal for onward sale to CP Foods. The company uses this fishmeal to feed its farmed prawns, which it then ships to international customers.

The alarm over slavery in the Thai fishing industry has been sounded before by non-governmental organisations and in UN reports.

But now, for the first time, the Guardian has established how the pieces of the long, complex supply chains connect slavery to leading producers and retailers.

"If you buy prawns or shrimp from Thailand, you will be buying the produce of slave labour," said Aidan McQuade, director of Anti-Slavery International.

The Guardian conducted dozens of interviews with fishermen, boat captains, boat managers, factory owners and Thai officials in and around various ports in Thailand.Thailand enjoys a prime position as the world's largest prawn exporter in a vast seafood-export industry estimated to be worth some $7.3bn. Through multinationals such as CP Foods, Thailand ships out roughly 500,000 tonnes of prawns every year – nearly 10% of which is farmed by CP Foods alone.

Although slavery is illegal in every country in the world, including Thailand, some 21 million men, women and children are enslaved globally, according to the International Labour Organisation. These people may have been sold like property, forced to work under mental or physical threat, or find themselves controlled by their "employers". Thailand is considered a major source, transit and destination country for slavery, and nearly half a million people are believed to be currently enslaved within Thailand's borders. There is no official record of how many men are enslaved on fishing boats. But the Thai government estimates that up to 300,000 people work in its fishing industry, 90% of whom are migrants vulnerable to being duped, trafficked and sold to the sea. Rights groups have long pointed to Thailand's massive labour shortage in its fishing sector, which – along with an increased demand from the US and Europe for cheap prawns – has driven the need for cheap labour.

"We'd like to solve the problem of Thailand because there's no doubt commercial interests have created much of this problem," admits CP Foods' Miller.The Guardian's findings come at a crucial moment. After being warned for four consecutive years that it was not doing enough to tackle slavery, Thailand risks being given the lowest ranking on the US state department's human trafficking index, which grades 188 nations according to how well they combat and prevent human trafficking.

Relegation to tier 3 would put Thailand, which is grappling with the aftermath of a coup, on a par with North Korea and Iran, and could result in a downgrade of Thailand's trading status with the US.

"Thailand is committed to combatting human trafficking," said the Thai ambassador to the US, Vijavat Isarabhakdi. "We know a lot more needs to be done but we also have made very significant progress to address the problem."

Although the Thai government has told the Guardian that "combating human trafficking is a national priority", our undercover investigation unearthed a lawless and unregulated industry run by criminals and the Thai mafia – facilitated by Thai officials and sustained by the brokers who supply cheap migrant labour to boat owners.

"The Thai authorities could get rid of the brokers and arrange [legal] employment," one high-ranking Thai official, who is tasked with investigating human trafficking cases, said on condition of anonymity. "But the government doesn't want to do that, it doesn't want to take action. As long as [boat] owners still depend on brokers – and not the government – to supply workers, then the problem will never go away."

Human rights activists believe that Thailand's seafood-export industry would probably collapse without slavery. They say, there is little incentive for the Thai government to act and have called for consumers and international retailers to demand action.

"Global brands and retailers can do so much good without bringing too much risk upon themselves by simply enforcing their supplier standards, which typically prohibit forced labour and child labour," said Lisa Rende Taylor of Anti-Slavery International. "And if local businesses realise that non-compliance results in loss of business, it has the potential to bring about huge positive change in the lives of migrant workers and trafficking victims."The Guardian asked the supermarkets to comment on our finding of slavery in their supply chains.

All said they condemned slavery and human trafficking for labour. They all also pointed to systems of auditing they have in place to check labour conditions. Several retailers have joined a new initiative called Project Issara (Project Freedom) to discuss how they should respond and several attended a meeting in with the major producers in Bangkok at the end of last month at which slavery was discussed.

Walmart, the world's largest retailer, said: "We are actively engaged in this issue and playing an important role in bringing together stakeholders to help eradicate human trafficking from Thailand's seafood export sector."

Carrefour said it conducts social audits of all suppliers, including the CP factory that supplies it with some prawns. It tightened up the process after alerts in 2012. It admitted that it did not check right to the end of its complex chains.

Costco told us it would require its suppliers of Thai prawn "to take corrective action to police their feedstock sources".

A Tesco spokesperson said: "We regard slavery as completely unacceptable. We are working with CP Foods to ensure the supply chain is slavery-free, and are also working in partnership with the International Labour Organisation [ILO] and Ethical Trading Initiative to achieve broader change across the Thai fishing industry."

Morrisons said it would take the matter up with CP urgently. "We are concerned by the findings of the investigation. Our ethical trading policy forbids the use of forced labour by suppliers and their suppliers."

The Co-operative was among those saying it was already working to understand "working conditions beyond the processing level". "The serious issue of human trafficking on fishing boats is challenging to address and requires a partnership" in which it is actively engaged.

The managing director of corporate buying at Aldi UK, Tony Baines, said: "Our supplier standards, which form part of Aldi's contractual terms and conditions, stipulate that our suppliers must comply with applicable national laws, industry minimum standards and ILO and United Nations conventions of human rights, whichever standard is more stringent.

"These standards also require that suppliers do not engage in any form of forced labour and related practices. Aldi will not tolerate workplace practices and conditions which violate basic human rights."

Iceland said it only sourced one line containing prawns from a CP subsidiary but it was pleased to note that CP was "at the forefront of efforts to raise standards in the Thai fishing industry".

CP said in a statement that it believed the right thing was to use its commercial weight to try to influence the Thai government to act rather than walk away from the Thai fishing industry, although it is putting in place plans to use alternative proteins in its feed so that it can eliminate Thai fishmeal by 2021 if necessary. It said it had already tightened controls over the way its fishmeal is procured. While it recognises that workers on boats are exploited, it added that the Thai department of fisheries continues to deny that unregistered boats are a problem. "We can do nothing, and witness these social and environmental issues destroy the seas around Thailand, or we can help drive improvement plans. We are making good progress," it said.

This article was amended on 11 June 2014 as an earlier version said Thailand ships out roughly 50,000 tonnes of prawns every year. This has been corrected to say 500,000 tonnes.

Shady Shrimp Vendor In China Is Injecting Seafood With Gelatin

A vendor in Zhejiang, China is under investigation for pumping his shrimp full of what appears to be gelatin before bringing them to market.

According to Shanghaiist, a woman who goes by Zheng bought some shrimp at a market in Wenzhou. When she got home, she started to prepare the crustaceans for cooking. When she cut into the shrimp, a clear gelatin-like substance squished out from both the head and body.

Zheng didn’t eat the shrimp or the surprise dessert inside. Instead, she took photos to document her discovery and posted them on the Internet. Local and international media and authorities latched onto the story, and police are now investigating the seller. Check out more disturbing photos of the shrimp over on Yahoo Hong Kong.

While some online commentators think it’s gelatin, others suspect that it’s some kind of less appetizing (and safe) adhesive plastic glass.

Shanghaiist notes that some seafood vendors inject gelatin inside frozen shrimp to make them appear plumper and heavier when they’re defrosted. Normally, frozen shrimp have a tendency toward a deflated appearance when they’re brought to room temperature.

At least one Chinese food seller is making jokes and taking advantage of the situation:

Who knows, maybe the seller thought gelatin-pumped shrimp might have the same appeal as fancy collagen drinks, which aging ladies sip on to retain that youthful glow.

As food scandals go, this is small potatoes compared to other scandals that have recently rocked China. Remember those 22 tons of fake beef that were seized a couple years back? And then there was an American-owned meat supplier selling expired meat to fast-food chains in 2014.

Click Here for Sam Choy's Recipes

Marinate about 8 chicken thighs in shoyu, garlic salt, and salad oil for ½ hour.

Dust thighs in a mixture of 2 cups cornstarch and 1 cup flour.

In a pan, fry in oil over medium to medium high heat until cooked through and golden brown.

Let thighs drain…then slice across thighs katsu style.

In a pan over medium heat mix ½ cup of citrus juice, ½ cup vinegar, 1 ½ cups sugar, and ½ cup water.

Add minced garlic and slices of ginger

Add ketchup for color and flavoring

Bring everything to a boil then thicken sauce with mixture of cornstarch and water

Spoon mixture over sliced chicken

Garnish with slices of peeled orange

Pasta With Shrimp

Peel carrots, slice thin, about 2 inches in length

Boil carrots until they begin to soften

Clean and slice about a dozen mushrooms

Cook 1 package Rotini pasta per directions

Peel and finely chop 2 cloves of garlic

In a large pan over medium heat use 1 tablespoon of oil to sauté the garlic and shrimp


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Another Year in Recipes

Bruno Courrèges, chief of police in a small Dordogne village, belongs to the grand tradition of fictional detectives-cum-gastronomes, like Nero Wolfe and Salvo Montalbano. But there’s one big difference between Bruno and those others: Bruno cooks. While investigating crimes and unmasking criminals, Bruno always finds time to prepare meals featuring dishes of his region for colleagues, neighbors, and lady friends.

Author Martin Walker describes Bruno’s kitchen work so lushly and appealingly (it’s Perigord – think truffles and foie gras) that, reading along, I often feel I’d need no further recipe to make his dishes at home. So Tom and I and our friend Hope did just that for our latest cookathon, our periodic all-afternoon playings in our kitchen, followed by an evening of enjoying the fruits of our labors. Here’s the Bruno-style menu we prepared this time:

Foie-Gras Stuffed Figs
Truffle Omelets
Spit-Roasted Lamb
Sarladaise Potatoes
Perigord Walnut Tart

Lush enough for you? This dinner turned out to be truly caloric megadeath.

Foie-Gras Stuffed Figs

This isn’t actually one of Bruno’s own dishes, and it’s not in any of the books. The Bruno website, which has a recipe section, tells us that Bruno’s neighbor Pamela (“the mad Englishwoman”) once served them at a cocktail party, which undoubtedly Bruno would have attended.

We steamed dried Turkish figs to soften them a bit, sliced off the stems, poked a hole in each one, filled the cavities with pâté de foie gras, and chilled the figs for several hours. For serving we cut each fig in half. They were, as you’d expect, rich and luscious, though the two flavors remained independent, not combining to create any amazingly new third thing. Still, who can quarrel with figs and foie gras?

Bruno would have drunk a glass of the local sweet Monbazillac wine with this. I couldn’t find any, so we had a 1989 Sauternes, which comes from the Graves region of Bordeaux, just southwest of the Perigord. In France, this is a time-honored companion to foie gras. It went very well indeed.

Truffle Omelets

To date, Bruno has made truffle omelets in two of the books, Bruno Chief of Police and The Dark Vineyard. Of course, he uses eggs from his own hens and local truffles. We, alas, had to accept commercial products.

We’d intended to spring for fresh black truffles, but the Urbani company didn’t have any this week, so we had to settle for two ounces of flash-frozen. They were better than the ones that come in jars but not as fully fragrant as fresh ones. We were extravagant with them, though, steeping about half in the beaten eggs for several hours, then slicing the rest over the top of the cooked omelets – cooked in duck fat, in the true Bruno manner. Not at all shabby!

Since our cellar doesn’t run to Perigord wines, with this course we drank another Bordeaux, a 2008 St. Emilion.

Spit-Roasted Lamb

Bruno and his friends roast two whole spring lambs over an open fire at an outdoor feast in The Dark Vineyard. It was somewhat perverse of us to choose this recipe, since we have no access to an outdoor grill, and an entire lamb was clearly out of the question for three people. But we didn’t let logic or common sense slow us down. We had half a boned leg of lamb, which we stuffed with bay leaves and rosemary sprigs before rolling, tying, and setting up on my open-hearth electric rotisserie.

In the book, the lambs were basted repeatedly with a mixture of vin de noix, olive oil, and honey. I couldn’t get the actual French fortified walnut wine, but we approximated it closely enough with nocino, the Italian version. We used equal parts of nocino, olive oil, and chestnut honey. To our regret, we also didn’t have a branch of a bay tree to brush it on with, as Bruno did. So there were some compromises in our version of this dish.

Happily, the lamb came out very well – tender and flavorful, delicately perfumed on the inside from the herbs and sweetly savory on the outside from the intriguing sweet/tart flavors of the baste. Continuing with Bordeaux wine, we drank a 1999 Chateau Gloria St. Julien, which accompanied the lamb beautifully: Cabernet always loves lamb.

Sarladaise Potatoes, Asparagus

In Black Diamond, Bruno makes venison stew for a dinner in the home of his friend the Baron. Three of the other guests prepare sarladaise potatoes. There’s a complete recipe for the potatoes on the Bruno website, which we mostly followed. We parboiled waxy La Ratte heirloom potatoes, sliced and sauteed them in duck fat until they began to brown, then stirred in minced garlic and parsley for the last few minutes.

This has not been a great winter for potatoes in our part of the world – most have been almost flavorless – but these were lush from the duck fat and zingy from the garlic. Alongside, we had fresh asparagus spears, just boiled and drizzled with melted butter. Bruno usually dresses his asparagus with hollandaise sauce, but for a meal he makes in The Devil’s Cave he doesn’t – because, he explains, there’d already been eggs in the omelet. So since we’d had our eggs too, we left the asparagus plain. We needed something on our plates that was green and not heart-stoppingly rich!

Perigord Walnut Tart

In the books Bruno doesn’t make desserts very often, quite understandably given the satiety level of his cooking, so we cast our eyes farther afield. Knowing that walnuts are a prized specialty of the Dordogne, we looked up walnut dessert recipes from Perigord on the Web and chose one that looked not too complex. It’s a tart shell of sweet pastry dough, baked with a custardy filling of eggs, cream, milk, sugar, and lots of chopped walnuts. (One caution if you look at the recipe: I didn’t trust its pâte sucrée technique so I used a different version, one I’d made before and had more confidence in.).

The tart was very sweet, but also very pleasant: cookielike crust, creamy center, crunchy nuts. I might well make it again – after a simpler dinner! – just cutting back a little on the sugar. With it we enjoyed another glass of the Sauternes, so ending with a liquid reminder of where we began.

As I said at the beginning, this was a totally over-the-top meal. I don’t know how Bruno and his Perigueux friends can get through so many rich dishes at a sitting. Maybe they do it only once a year? And eat only green salads for a week after? I’m sure that we’ll never attempt to do it all even once again. But it was a heroic and fascinating experiment.

China to ease its notorious birth control policy

As the United States discovered at the worst possible time, you shouldn’t have your supply chain for critical goods rely on a foreign — and often adversarial — country. Right as the pandemic hit, America and our front-line workers faced shortages of critical medical equipment manufactured in China. The Beijing regime delayed shipments and later shipped goods that didn’t meet standards.

Now, policymakers are looking for other ways in which we can make sure important goods aren’t dependent on unreliable supply chains. A good start is what we eat.

Thirty-three percent of vegetables, 55 percent of fruits and 94 percent of the seafood we eat is imported. Each year, billions of pounds of food are produced in China. Recently, Team Trump announced an executive order aimed at boosting our domestic production of seafood. The order establishes a task force to streamline regulations on domestic aquaculture, find new markets to pursue and identify unfair trade barriers to confront.

Among the reasons cited was food safety: Many of the catfish and tilapia we import from China swim in pens polluted with waste and improperly used chemicals. Some fish are literally fed with manure.

We’ve heard the horror stories of Chinese food scandals: plastic rice, exploding watermelons, rat meat sold as lamb. Worse, we’ve experienced it: Remember melamine in pet food that killed many household pets?

Food safety issues are endemic in Communist China. A 2016 ­report from the firm QIMA, which audits food-processing companies in China, found that 48 percent of the Chinese plants it inspected failed to meet the standards of its Western clients. Violations ­included contamination with pesticides, medical drugs, heavy metals, bacteria and viruses.

It isn’t just seafood. China is the leading exporter of ginger. A 2017 investigation found high levels of pesticides on Chinese ginger sold as “organic.” One inspection company found that 37 percent of samples contained concerning amounts of pesticide residue. Contamination may be from drifting chemicals from neighboring farms, or it may come from polluted soil and water, used to process and wash the produce.

China’s plant-protein processing is also a key component of some foods. Nutritional supplements to synthetic meats have received a lot of consumer interest over the past year. One Chinese province is home to 70 percent of the global supply of soy protein isolate used in these products.

In 2018, laboratory testing commissioned by the nonprofit Clean Label Campaign found heavy metal contamination widespread in these protein powders used as supplements. Many came from China. Testing commissioned by my nonprofit also found detectable amounts of heavy metals in several of the new synthetic meat products.

Shrimp sold by global supermarkets is peeled by slave labourers in Thailand

E very morning at 2am, they heard a kick on the door and a threat: get up or get beaten. For the next 16 hours, No 31 and his wife stood in the factory with their aching hands in ice water. They ripped the guts, heads, tails and shells off shrimp bound for overseas markets, including grocery stores and all-you-can-eat buffets across the US.

After being sold to the Gig Peeling Factory, the couple were at the mercy of their Thai bosses, trapped with nearly 100 other Burmese migrants. Children worked alongside them, including a girl so tiny she had to stand on a stool to reach the peeling table. Some had been there for months, even years, getting little or no pay. At all times, someone was watching.

Names were never used, only numbers given by their boss. Tin Nyo Win was No 31.

Pervasive human trafficking has helped turn Thailand into one of the world’s biggest shrimp providers. Despite repeated promises by businesses and government to clean up the country’s £4.6bn seafood export industry, an Associated Press (AP) investigation has found that shrimp peeled by modern-day slaves is reaching the US, Europe and Asia.

The problem is fuelled by corruption and complicity among police and authorities, and arrests and prosecutions are rare. Raids can end up sending migrants without proper paperwork to jail, while owners go unpunished.

So far this year, more than 2,000 trapped fishermen have been rescued as a result of an ongoing AP investigative series into slavery in the Thai seafood industry. The reports have led to a dozen arrests, millions of dollars’ worth of seizures and proposals for new federal laws.

Hundreds of shrimp peeling sheds are hidden in plain sight on residential streets or behind walls in Samut Sakhon, a port town an hour outside Bangkok. The AP found one factory that was enslaving dozens of workers, and escaped migrants led rights groups to the Gig shed and a third facility. All three sheds held 50 to 100 people, with many locked inside.

Thai soldiers search workers’ living quarters during a raid on a shrimp shed in Samut Sakhon, Thailand. Photograph: Dita Alangkara/AP

As Tin Nyo Win soon found out for himself, there is no easy escape. One woman had been working at Gig for eight years. Another man ended up peeling shrimps there after breaking free from another factory that was equally brutal.

“I was shocked after working there a while, and I realised there was no way out,” said Tin Nyo Win, 22, whose teeth are stained red from chewing betel nut. “I told my wife, ‘We’re in real trouble. If something ends up going wrong, we’re going to die.’”

Last month, AP journalists followed and filmed trucks loaded with freshly peeled shrimp from the Gig shed to major Thai exporting companies and then, using US customs records and Thai industry reports, tracked it globally. They traced similar connections from another factory raided six months earlier, and interviewed more than two dozen workers from both sites.

US customs records show that the shrimp entered the supply chains of major US food stores and retailers such as Walmart, Kroger, Whole Foods, Dollar General and Petco, along with those of restaurants such as Red Lobster and Olive Garden.

It also entered the supply chains of some of America’s best-known seafood brands and pet foods, including Chicken of the Sea and Fancy Feast, which are sold in grocery stores from Safeway and Schnucks to Piggly Wiggly and Albertsons. AP reporters went to supermarkets in all 50 states and found shrimp products from supply chains tainted with forced labour. There is no suggestion that any of these companies were aware of the use of slave labourers.

European and Asian import and export records are confidential, but the Thai companies receiving shrimp tracked by the AP all say they ship to Europe and Asia as well.

The businesses that responded condemned the practices that lead to these conditions. Many said they were launching investigations after being told that their supply chains were linked to people held against their will in sheds like the Gig factory, which sat behind a gate off a busy street.

Inside the large warehouse, toilets overflowed with faeces, and the putrid smell of raw sewage wafted from an open gutter just outside the work area. Young children ran barefoot through suffocating dorm rooms. Entire families laboured side-by-side at rows of stainless steel counters piled high with tubs of shrimp.

Tin Nyo Win and his wife, Mi San, were cursed for not peeling fast enough and called “cows” and “buffaloes”. They were allowed to go outside for food only if one of them stayed behind as insurance against running away. But escaping was all they could think about.

Burmese worker Tin Nyo Win, known as No 31, right, helps remove a pair of gloves from the hands of his wife, Mi San, in Samut Sakhon, Thailand. Photograph: Dita Alangkara/AP

Shrimp is the most-loved seafood in the US, with Americans eating 590m kg of it every year, or about 1.8kg per person. Once a luxury reserved for special occasions, it became cheaper when Asian farmers started growing it in ponds three decades ago. Thailand quickly dominated the market and now sends nearly half of its supply to the US.

The south-east Asian country is one of the worst human trafficking hubs on earth. It has been blacklisted for the past two years by the US State Department, which cited complicity by Thai officials. The EU issued a warning this year that tripled seafood import tariffs, and is expected to decide next month whether to impose an outright ban.

Consumers enjoy the convenience of dumping shrimp straight from freezer to skillet, the result of labour-intensive peeling and cleaning. Unable to keep up with demand, exporters get their supply from peeling sheds that are often just crude garages adjacent to the boss’s house. Supply chains are so complicated that buyers often don’t know exactly where the shrimp has come from.

The Thai Frozen Foods Association lists about 50 registered shrimp sheds in the country. However, hundreds more operate in Samut Sakhon, the country’s main shrimp processing region. Here the humid air hangs thick with the smell of dead fish. Refrigerated trucks with seafood logos barrel down streets straddled by huge processing plants. Just as ubiquitous are the small pickups loaded with migrant workers from Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar being taken to gut, fillet and peel the seafood that fuels this town’s economy.

Abuse is common in Samut Sakhon. An International Labour Organisation (pdf) report estimated 10,000 migrant children aged 13-15 work in the city. Another UN agency study found that nearly 60% of Burmese labourers toiling in its seafood processing industry were victims of forced labour.

Tin Nyo Win and his wife were taken to the Gig Peeling Factory in July when they made the long drive from Myanmar across the border, crammed so tightly into a truck with other workers that they could barely breathe. Like many migrants, they were lured from home by a broker with promises of well-paid jobs, and came without visas or work permits.

After being sold to the Gig shed, the couple learned they would have to work off what was considered their combined worth, £548m. It was an insurmountable debt.

Because they were illegal workers, the owners constantly threatened to call police to keep them in line. Even documented migrants were vulnerable because the boss held on to identification papers so they could not leave.

Under the US government’s definition, forced labour and debt bondage are considered slavery.

In the Gig shed, employees’ salaries were pegged to how fast their fingers could move. Tin Nyo Win and his wife peeled about 80kg of shrimp for just £2.65 a day, less than half of what they were promised. A female Thai manager, who slapped and cursed workers, often cut their wages without explanation. After they bought gloves and rubber boots, and paid monthly “cleaning fees” inside the shed, almost nothing was left.

Employees said they had to work even when they were ill. Seventeen children peeled alongside adults, sometimes crying, at stations where paint chipped off the walls and slippery floors were destroyed by briny water.

Lunch breaks were only 15 minutes, and migrants were yelled at for talking. Several workers said a woman had died recently because she didn’t get proper medical care for her asthma. Children never went to school and began peeling shrimp just an hour later than adults.

“We had to get up at 3am and then start working continuously,” said Eae Hpaw, 16, whose arms were a patchwork of scars from infections and allergies caused by the shrimp. “We stopped working around 7pm. We would take a shower and sleep. Then we would start again.”

After being roughed up one night by a supervisor, five months into their captivity, Tin Nyo Win and his wife decided they couldn’t take the threats any more.

“They would say, ‘There’s a gun in the boss’s car and we’re going to come and shoot you, and no one will know,’” he said.

The next morning, the couple saw an opportunity when the door wasn’t being watched. They ran. Less than 24 hours later, Tin Nyo Win’s wife was captured at a market by the shed manager. He watched helplessly as she was dragged away by her hair – he was terrified for her and for the baby she was carrying.

Shrimp are left on an abandoned peeling table as a Thai soldier walks past during a raid on the shrimp shed in Samut Sakhon, Thailand, 9 November 2015. Photograph: Dita Alangkara/AP

Tracking shipments from just the Gig Peeling Factory highlights how fast and far slave-peeled shrimp can travel.

The AP followed trucks from the shed over five days to major Thai exporters. One load pulled into N&N Foods, owned by one of the world’s largest seafood companies, Tokyo-based Maruha Nichiro Foods. A second drove to Okeanos Food, a subsidiary of another leading global seafood supplier, Thai Union. Still more went to Kongphop Frozen Foods and the Siam Union Frozen Foods, which have customers in the US, Canada, Europe, Asia and Australia. All the exporters and parent companies that responded said they abhor human rights abuses. There is no suggestion that any of these companies were aware of the use of slave labourers.

Shrimp is mixed with different batches of seafood as it is packaged and shipped. At that point, there’s no way to tell where any individual piece was peeled. Once it reaches American restaurants, hospitals, universities and military chow halls, all the shrimp from those four Thai processors is considered associated with slavery, according to UN and US standards.

US customs records linked the exported shrimp to more than 40 US brands, including popular names such as Sea Best, Waterfront Bistro and Aqua Star. The AP found shrimp products with the same labels in more than 150 stores across America from Honolulu to New York City to a tiny West Virginia town of 179 people. The supermarket chains have tens of thousands of US outlets where millions of Americans shop. (Again, there is no suggestion that any of these companies were aware of the use of slave labourers.)

In addition, the Thai distributors state on their websites that they export to Europe and Asia, although specific records are confidential. AP reporters in Germany, Italy, England and Ireland researched shrimp in supermarkets and found several brands sourced from Thailand. Those stores said the names of their Thai distributors are proprietary.

By all accounts, the work at the Gig shed was off the books and thus even businesses carefully tracking the provenance of the shrimp called the AP’s findings a surprise.

“I want to eliminate this,” said Dirk Leuenberger, CEO of Aqua Star. “I think it’s disgusting that it’s even remotely part of my business.”

Many companies asked for more details. Some, including Whole Foods and HEB supermarkets, said they were confident their shrimp was not associated with abusive factories.

The Thai company that supplies most of the shrimp to the US admitted that it hadn’t known where all of it was coming from, and sent a note outlining corrective measures to US businesses demanding answers last week.

“I am deeply disappointed that despite our best efforts we have discovered this potential instance of illegal labour practice in our supply chain,” Thai Union CEO Thiraphong Chansiri wrote. His statement acknowledged “that illicitly sourced product may have fraudulently entered its supply chain” and confirmed a supplier “was doing business with an unregistered pre-processor in violation of our code of conduct”.

After AP brought its findings to dozens of global retailers, Thai Union announced it would bring all shrimp processing in-house by the end of the year and provide jobs to workers whose factories close as a result. It’s a significant step from the industry leader whose international brands include John West in Britain, Petit Navire in France and Mareblu in Italy shrimp from abusive factories in Thailand has not been associated with them.

Susan Coppedge, the US State Department’s new anti-trafficking ambassador, said problems persist because brokers, boat captains and seafood firms aren’t held accountable and victims have no recourse.

“We have told Thailand to improve their anti-trafficking efforts, to increase their prosecutions, to provide services to victims,” she said. She added that American consumers “can speak through their wallets and tell companies: ‘We don’t want to buy things made with slavery.’”

The State Department has not slapped Thailand with sanctions applied to other countries with similarly weak human trafficking records because it is a strategically critical south-east Asian ally. Federal authorities say they can’t enforce US laws that ban importing goods produced by forced labour, citing an exception for items consumers can’t get from another source. Thai shrimp slips through that loophole.

Thailand is not the only source of slave-tainted seafood in the US, where nearly 90% of shrimp is imported.

Shrimp products from Thailand packaged under the name “Aqua Star” at a grocery store in Phoenix, Arizona. Photograph: Ross D Franklin/AP

The State Department’s annual anti-trafficking reports have tied such seafood to 55 countries on six continents, including major suppliers to the US. Earlier this year, the AP uncovered a slave island in Benjina, Indonesia, where hundreds of migrant fishermen were trafficked from Thailand and sometimes locked in a cage. In November, food giant Nestlé disclosed that its own Thai suppliers were abusing and enslaving workers and has vowed to force change.

Human trafficking in Thailand also stretches far beyond the seafood industry. Earlier this year, high-ranking officials were implicated in a smuggling syndicate involving tens of thousands of Rohingya Muslims fleeing persecution in Myanmar. A crackdown came after dozens of victims died in Thai jungle camps because they were unable to pay ransoms.

The junta military government has singled out the country’s fisheries sector for reforms. It says it has passed new laws to crack down on illegal activities aboard fishing boats and inside seafood-processing factories and is working to register undocumented migrant workers.

“There have been some flaws in the laws, and we have been closing those gaps,” said ML Puntarik Smiti, the Thai labour ministry’s permanent secretary. “The government has made human trafficking a national agenda. The policy is clear, and every department is working in the same direction … In the past, most punishments focused on the labourers, but now more focus is put on punishing the employers.”

Police point to a new law that goes after officers involved in human trafficking, and say rooting out corruption and complicity is a priority.

However, critics argue that the changes have been largely cosmetic. Former slaves repeatedly described how police took them into custody and then sold them to agents who trafficked them again into the seafood industry.

“There are laws and regulations, but they are being selectively enforced to benefit one side,” said Patima Tungpuchayakul, manager of the Thai-based non-profit Labour Rights Promotion Network Foundation. “When you find there is a child working 16 hours a day and getting paid [£1.80] . the government has to put a stop to this.”

The peeling sheds that supply to major Thai seafood companies are supposed to be certified and inspected, but the stamp of approval does not always prevent abuses.

A factory just a few miles away from Tin Nyo Win’s shed provided shrimp to companies including Thai Union a half-dozen former workers said a Thai Union employee visited the shed every day. A runaway worker, Moe Pyae Soe, alerted a local migrant labour group about slave-like conditions there after being brutally beaten across his ear and throat with iron chains. Police raided the factory in May.

Former employees told the AP they had been locked inside and forced to work long hours with no days off and little sleep.

The conditions inside were horrific: a woman who was eight months’ pregnant miscarried on the shed floor and was forced to keep peeling for four days while haemorrhaging. An unconscious toddler was refused medical care after falling about 12 feet on to a concrete floor. Another pregnant woman escaped only to be tracked down, yanked into a car by her hair and handcuffed to a fellow worker at the factory.

“Sometimes when we were working, the tears would run down our cheeks because it was so tiring we couldn’t bear it,” said Moe Pyae Soe, 33, who was trapped inside with his wife. “We were crying, but we kept peeling shrimp. We couldn’t rest … I think people are guilty if they eat the shrimp that we peeled like slaves.”

Shrimp from that factory entered the supply chains of Thai Union, which, in the six months prior to the bust, shipped 6.8m kg of frozen shrimp to dozens of US companies, customs records show. Those included Red Lobster and Darden Restaurants, which owns LongHorn Steakhouse and several other popular American chains. There is no suggestion that any of these companies were aware of the use of slave labourers.

Moe Pyae Soe was a free man after the May raid. But five months later, running low on cash with a pregnant wife, he felt desperate enough to look for a job in another shrimp factory. He hoped conditions would be better this time.

They weren’t. His wages were withheld, and he ended up in the Gig factory peeling shrimp next to Tin Nyo Win, No 31.

Modern-day slavery is often just part of doing business in Thailand’s seafood export capital. Some shed owners believe they are providing jobs to poor migrant workers in need. Police are paid to look the other way and say officers frequently do not understand that practices such as forced labour and debt bondage are against the law.

“We just need to educate everyone on this issue,” said Jaruwat Vaisaya, deputy commissioner of Bangkok’s Metropolitan Police. “I don’t think they know what they’re doing is called human trafficking, but they must know it’s wrong.”

News surfaces about an abusive shed only when workers become so hopeless they’re willing to risk everything to escape. Once on the street, without documentation, they are even more vulnerable they face possible arrest and deportation or being resold.

After fleeing the Gig shed, Tin Nyo Win was alone. He didn’t even know where the shed manager had taken his wife. He sought help from a local labour rights group, which prompted police to take action.

At dawn on 9 November, nearly two weeks after running away, he returned to the shed disguised in dark glasses, a hat and a mask. He burst through the gate with dozens of officers and military troops, and searched for his wife in the dim quarters on both floors of the complex.

Children and teenagers sit together to be registered by officials during a raid on a shrimp shed in Samut Sakhon, Thailand, 9 November 2015. Photograph: Dita Alangkara/AP

Frightened Burmese workers huddled on the concrete floor, the men and women separated. Some could be heard whispering: “That’s 31. He came back.” One young mother breastfed a baby, while 17 children were taken into a corner. Tin Nyo Win’s wife was nowhere.

However, it didn’t take police long to find her: Mi San was at a nearby fish factory. After being caught by the shed manager, she had been taken to police. But instead of treating her as a trafficking victim, she said they put her back to work. Even as police and her husband escorted her out of the second factory, the Thai owner followed them into the street, complaining that Mi San still owed £15 for food she had eaten.

For Thai police, it looked like a victory in front of the cameras. But the story does not end there.

No one at the Gig shed was arrested for human trafficking, a law that’s seldom enforced. Instead, migrants with papers, including seven children, were sent back there to work. Another 10 undocumented children were taken from their parents and put into a shelter, forced to choose between staying there for years or being deported back to Myanmar alone. Nineteen other illegal workers were detained.

Tin Nyo Win and his wife soon found out that not even whistleblowers are protected. Just four days after being reunited, the couple were locked inside a Thai jail cell without even a mattress. They were held on nearly £2,650 bail and charged with entering the country illegally and working without permits.

Back at the shed where their nightmare began, a worker reached by phone pleaded for help as trucks loaded with slave-peeled shrimp continued to roll out.

The Gig Peeling Factory is now closed, with workers moved to another shed linked to the same owners, local police said. A Gig owner reached by phone declined to comment.

A senior Bangkok police officer was alerted to how the case was being handled and has ordered local authorities to re-investigate it for human trafficking. Tin Nyo Win and his pregnant wife were released from jail 10 days after they were locked up and are now living at a government shelter for victims of human trafficking.

Chaiyuth Thomya, the superintendent of Samut Sakhon’s main police station, called a meeting to explain human trafficking laws to nearly 60 shed owners, some of whom were confused about raids that swept up illegal migrants. Later, Chaiyuth quoted one shed owner as saying, “I’m not selling drugs – why did they take possession of my things?”

Meanwhile, the AP informed labour rights investigators about another shed where workers said they were being held against their will. It is being examined.

AP videographer Tassanee Vejpongsa in Samut Sakhon, Thailand, and writer Elaine Kurtenbach in Tokyo also contributed to this report

In Yee case, a figure of many faces

When Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow walked the streets of San Francisco’s Chinatown in one of his natty suits, bright pocket square ablaze, he exuded power.

Almost from the moment he arrived from Hong Kong in 1976 at the age of 16, he was a force in the local underworld, working as an enforcer for a local fraternal club called the Hop Sing Tong, shaking down gambling dens and running prostitution rings, according to authorities and his own accounts.

He once told prosecutors he was in charge of all Asian crime in San Francisco, and admitted that he partnered with a leader in an ancient Chinese criminal group, or Triad. But after three stints in prison, he said he was going straight.

The ever-swaggering Chow, 5-foot-5 with a shiny bald head and pencil moustache, spoke to at-risk youth about the dangers of gang life, became involved in community politics, and claimed to be pitching a movie to Hollywood about his life. Social workers believed his transformation, and soon he was being honored by the likes of San Francisco Mayor Edwin Lee, Assemblyman Tom Ammiano and U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

“All the criminal past I had, I cannot deny that,” he said at a press conference in front of City Hall in 2009. “But today I do not represent crime. I do not represent violence and gangs.”

That new persona crumbled this week when he was arrested as part of a sweeping federal corruption investigation — one in which State. Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) was charged with conspiring to deal firearms for campaign contributions. Two dozen associates were also arrested.

According to the 137-page affidavit made public Wednesday in support of the criminal complaint, Chow, 54, vascillated between claims to undercover agents: that he had truly given up crime, and that he was a crime boss who simply didn’t get his hands dirty since his last prison stint. He allegedly told them that when a member of his organization kills another, he decides if the killling was justified.

The affidavit alleges that he made introductions and took payments for allowing various acts of money laundering and smuggling to occur.

He was arrested at his girlfriend’s house in San Francisco, and faces charges of money laundering, conspiracy to transport stolen property across state lines and conspiracy to traffic in contraband cigarettes that bring a potential maximum prison sentence of 115 years.

Local law enforcement officials say they never bought Chow’s public claims of legitimacy. But they also didn’t buy the big-shot international figure he purported to be in more secretive circles of Chinatown.

They suspected he had lost clout in the underworld, living hand to mouth on payments from whomever he was able to scare, according to Ignatius Chinn, a San Francisco police officer and former California Department of Justice agent who spent two years investigating Chow prior to his 1995 conviction.

“The local gangsters have a saying: ‘Follow the shrimp if you don’t want to eat,” Chinn said.

Chow had been something of a colorful caricature of late, parking himself at the Redwood Room near Union Square, chatting with tourists or Silicon Valley newcomers drawn to his gangland tales. A YouTube video called “Meeting Raymond Chow” shows him joking with Norwegian tourists.

He talked to reporters and was the subject of an episode of the History Channel show “Gangland.”

In that episode, he said he first joined a gang in his native Hong Kong at age 9, when he stabbed someone. When he moved to San Francisco, the Kung Fu devotee quickly made a name for himself as the leader of the Hop Sing Boys.

A gang war erupted in 1977, in part, over the distribution of fireworks. When rivals opened fire in the Golden Dragon restaurant, where Chow was dining, they killed five innocent people, wounded 11 others and shattered Chinatown’s reputation as a safe tourist destination.

Chow escaped unhurt. But the next year, he was sentenced to 11 years in prison and went to San Quentin on armed robbery charges. He was released early but went back to prison for assault with a deadly weapon.

He was back on the streets again in 1989, and the FBI began wiretapping him.

In 1992, he and 19 others were charged in a 108-page racketeering indictment for an alleged scheme to bring Asian gangs on both coasts under the umbrella of a Triad, the Wo Hop To, in Hong Kong. Chow faced 48 counts, including murder-for-hire, heroin trafficking, conspiracy, violent racketeering and importing firearms. He was convicted on the gun charges and sentenced to more than 23 years in prison.

Chow testified against his partner, Peter Chong, in exchange for a reduced sentence in 2001 and was released in 2003.

Chow had promoted himself as a legitimate businessman ever since. The city gave him a certificate of honor, thanks to Supervisor Fiona Ma. He received plaudits from Feinstein and other high-level politicians based on a “Change Agent” award given to him by Bayview Hunters Point Multipurpose Senior Services.

His Facebook page has a photo of him with former Mayor Gavin Newsom.

“The people who believed him were people from outside the community who found the best in everybody and didn’t know what was going on,” said Chinn, the San Francisco police officer.

The senior group’s executive director, Cathy Davis, feels tricked by Chow. “He really made a bad name for a lot of people we try to honor,” she said.

The latest investigation began when an FBI agent posing as an East Coast member of La Cosa Nostra met Chow in May 2010, saying he was looking to launder money from various illegal enterprises. According to the affidavit, signed by FBI Special Agent Emmanuel Pascua, Chow told the undercover operative that he could not be involved directly, but would make introductions for him.

By that June, Chow was on a chartered fishing boat off Oahu with two undercover agents, talking about how he could get military-grade tungsten from China cheaply, among other potential schemes, the affidavit said.

Chow introduced them to political consultant Keith Jackson, a key fundraiser for Yee, to get “inside deals” done, and to other associates, but continued to say he didn’t want to know about any criminal acts.

He said he suspected the Justice Department was watching his every move, and that he was broke, taking $200 to speak to classes about the “evils of alcohol and drugs.”

At the same time, Chow seemed unable to stop boasting about his power, according to the affidavit. He said he “dropped” the last person to threaten him, that he could move hundreds of kilos of drugs if he wanted to, and that he had mediated disputes between lower-level gang members.

Between March 2011 and December 2013, five associates of Chow laundered a total of $2.3 million, and took a 10% cut, in a scheme sanctioned by Chow, according to the FBI affidavit.

The agents then pushed to get involved in some of the illegal enterprises the Chinatown gangs were involved with. Chow was allegedly paid $28,000 for three schemes to sell stolen liquor and cigarettes, and then $30,000 for facilitating a money laundering scheme.

As he sat with an undercover agent and George Nieh, a leader of the Wah Ching gang, Chow said, “How am I hanging out with outlaws like this?”

Nieh said, “You are an outlaw too.”

Chow laughed. “I am innocent,” he said, according to the affidavit. “I don’t have no knowledge of the crimes you commit to pay for my meal, that is very bad. … I’m still eating though, I’m hungry.”

Times staff writer Christopher Megerian, in Sacramento, contributed to this report.

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