This is the other seafood lawsuit that deserves attention

By

Sean Murphy, SeafoodSource online editor

Published on
August 28, 2015

This week, a number of companies and consumers have made headlines by filing price-fixing lawsuits against three major tuna producers here in the United States, but there’s another legal case going on against an equally large company that deserves emphasis this week too, as a lesson on how much attention the industry’s customers are paying to how it does business.

The 19 August lawsuit by California resident Monica Sud against Costco and its shrimp supplier, Thailand’s CP Foods, is a good example of citizen activism, as long as the litigants keep in mind the complexity of the modern seafood supply chain.

Sud is suing, on behalf of all Costco customers who buy shrimp from the wholesale club store, to seek restitution from the club for shrimp she bought that she believes was the product of slave labor. While she is seeking restitution her attorney, Derek Howard, has made it clear that this is about more than just money.

“We’re interested in action, not litigation,” he said, indicating he and Sud would be willing to sit down with Costco and make a pledge of changes on Costco’s part a factor in the case.

In a perfect world, Howard said he’d like to see Costco either terminate relations with CP, label its products as potentially being products of slave labor, or work harder to ensure its products are not connected to human trafficking and label them as such. If a company like Costco takes any of these steps, Howard said, the rest of the industry would take notice.

“Until Costco delivers a message that they’re not going to buy from a tainted supply line, nothing’s going to change,” Howard said.

The suit refers to a number of reports, produced by the media and the activist group Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), which have exposed the dark side of the Thai fishing industry. The reports show immigrant laborers being held against their will and forced to work impossibly long hours under horrific conditions.

The suit also makes some bold allegations: that CP Foods’ shrimp products are still connected to forced labor, and that Costco knows this and has done nothing about it.

Based on what’s in the legal complaint, I’m not convinced. The British newspaper The Guardian linked CP’s fishmeal suppliers to human trafficking in a well-publicized investigation last year, but two weeks after that article was published, Thai media published a follow-up article indicating CP was cutting off nine of its 10 suppliers of fishmeal in order to divorce itself from human trafficking.

When I mentioned this, Howard said, “I’ve read the article, and I stand by my complaint.”

Without further smoking-gun evidence such as what the Guardian produced, I’m forced to give CP the benefit of the doubt here. CP is way too big and way too high-profile to take the chance that its lone remaining supplier has ties to slave labor – that’s just asking to be exposed again by the Guardian, or the Associated Press, or any other media organization watching the issue.

By the same logic, it doesn’t make sense that Costco would willingly turn a blind eye to this. Surely, Costco has made inquiries to CP about how the supplier produces its shrimp – that’s good common business sense. Just how far down the supply chain Costco’s inquiries went remains to be seen, and I don’t know what the legal standard is here, but it would seem the more Costco investigated its chain, the harder to prove the company was willfully ignorant of the human tragedy that might lurk at the bottom end of it.

That said, the lawsuit may still be on the right track. Even if it appears Howard and Sud have a less compromising approach to CP than the industry would like to see, we shouldn’t dismiss them as seeking an overly-simplified approach to the problem of human trafficking. The reactions of other members in the public to the mainstream media exposure of the problem have often gone much further, calling for the world to simply stop buying seafood from Thailand.

This is a bad idea, and Howard and Sud get that. Thailand is the third-largest seafood supplier in the world, and its No. 1 seafood export destination is the United States. There are companies in Thailand that do not have any ties to human trafficking, and boycotting the whole country will punish them as well as the criminals. Steve Trent, the EJF’s executive director, told me last year that he didn’t support what he called “blunt force” solutions such as boycotts or trade sanctions.

Sud and Howard appear to have the same commendable, level-headed perspective. While firm in his belief that Cotsco should cut CP Foods off, Howard said he too is not expecting Costco, or any other buyer, to cut itself off from all Thai seafood products.

“That’s too black-and-white,” he said.

If he and Sud really believe this, then it seems their hearts are in the right place, and perhaps this lawsuit will accomplish its goal – to drive the industry to take more action regarding slave labor.

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