Two years ago I stopped eating shrimp.
Well, not entirely: if it’s served to me, I’ll still eat it, to be polite (and because it’s delicious). But after reading in The Guardian about the global shrimp trade’s connections to slavery in Thailand and Indonesia, the environmental damage caused by shrimp farming in Vietnam, and the near-impossibility of tracing any given shellfish — and doing some local reporting of my own — I learned two things:
1. If the menu price for a shrimp dish is under $15, you know where the shrimp comes from.
2. There’s plenty of good shrimp, raised and harvested in better conditions — but I can’t afford it.
Then one day Rob Halpern, an entrepreneur, showed up at my door with some shrimp. He’d recently sent me a brief, cryptic, and unsolicited email stating that he was “involved in a large shrimp farm near London, Ontario.” The idea of local shrimp was intriguing, so I invited him to bring over a sample.
I fried the shellfish for a minute in oil and butter then squeezed a bit of lime juice over top. They were delicious, plump and sweet — and, according to Halpern, raised indoors in clean water, right here in Ontario.
Halpern confessed he was only an investor and had little to no understanding of shrimp or aquaculture. So instead of trying to explain to me the production process that made his product sustainable, he invited me to the Planet Shrimp facility in Aylmer, about 40 minutes southwest of London, to meet his shellfish-savvy business partner, Marvyn Budd.
I accepted the invitation and brought along Dan Donovan, my fishmonger and go-to seafood adviser.
Donovan had already tried early Planet Shrimp samples — produced by the same method, but before the facility had finished construction last year. (Perhaps surprisingly, Planet Shrimp was not the first business of its kind in the province; that distinction goes to First Ontario Shrimp, founded a few years earlier in Campbellford.) The wholesale price and environmental standards put them on par with Selva shrimp, grown in the mangroves of Vietnam.
We figured visiting the Planet Shrimp facility would be the best way to get a true sense of the conditions. “For the most part,” Donovan said on the drive down to Aylmer, “I haven’t been able to see the dark underbelly yet.”
- Why fish fraud is hard to reel in
- New rules may bring Ontario first new fish farm in 20 years
- The Agenda: Food fraud
Inside the old Imperial Tobacco processing plant, Budd — phone holstered to belt, T-shirt tucked into pants — greeted us and, with the patience of a seasoned tour guide, warned us about the humidity we were soon to face.
We moved through barn-sized rooms containing water tanks and filtration systems, generators and backup generators, a lab/office where a technician constantly monitored temperatures, and occasionally a few members of Planet Shrimp’s 25-strong staff.
When we finally entered the main floor, I was staggered by the scale: imagine an airport hangar, but filled with fish tanks stacked three storeys high. Climbing a ladder to the second and third levels, Budd showed us some of the shrimp beds in various stages of growth.
There’s no official rule dictating how long it takes to raise shrimp. Like cattle, it’s all about the time and resources the farmer invests in caring for, cleaning, and feeding the animal versus the attainable yield. For Budd, the sweet spot is between 120 and 140 days. Ultimately, though, it depends on what the customer wants.
“The market will tell us,” Budd explained, turning the ingredients for a po’ boy sandwich into a Miltonian exercise. “You can grow it in 110 days. If people in the marketplace want larger shrimp, that takes longer. Production needs to be designed around what the market wants.”
Part of the problem with farmed shrimp is they usually live in murky, coastal waterbeds teeming with antibiotics, hormones, and their own feces. Yet in the Planet Shrimp tanks, a mechanical bar routinely swept the floor of detritus, while constantly circulating clean water.
In one corner of the hangar, a small machine sat under a tarp. Its engine worked furiously, pumping a thin stream of a dark, solid substance into a waiting bin: shrimp excrement, which a local farmer was only too happy to scoop up for fertilizer.
“Aquaculture people are a different breed from the rest of the seafood industry,” Donovan said as we headed back to Toronto. “They’re farmers.”
But Budd and Halpern are not farm folk. They’re business folk. And they’re antsy. They’ve invested millions in Planet Shrimp and are still awaiting Canadian Food Inspection Agency certification so they can start selling outside Ontario.
They’ve been getting big-name chefs to sample their product, hoping for a marketing bump from influential restaurants that serve, Instagram, and vouch for Planet Shrimp. But the company is still battling the fresh-over-frozen mentality that’s so prevalent among chefs.
Budd and Halpern have staged a number of blind taste tests, and Budd said chefs have chosen their frozen product over fresh shrimp time after time: “Much as fresh has a connotation, the product is fresher when frozen — properly.”
That means when one of the batches is ready, the 700 to 800 pounds of shrimp exit their tank and enter a “chill-kill area” where “the animal is terminated in 2 C water” within one minute. “And they’re in the freezer within 15 minutes,” Budd said.
Of course, given the option, most of us would choose fresh over frozen. But mostly we’ve been choosing frozen without knowing it. Unless you live in a coastal community, 99 per cent of the shrimp you’ve ever eaten has been previously frozen. Your supermarket may have “fresh” product on display, piled high next to shiny filets of trout and halibut, but it’s been frozen too. Farmed and wild shrimp from overseas are all frozen for shipping.
Donovan, an expert in seafood and a constant advocate of quality over price, is also a big believer in frozen shrimp. But the testimony that really matters is the unwitting kind, delivered by average consumers via buying habits. After all, an uninformed choice is still a choice. So will Planet Shrimp turn Ontario into an inland Louisiana — our nation’s shrimp-farming nexus? The market will decide.
Get Current Affairs & Documentaries email updates in your inbox every morning.