Why Americans love shrimp.

How popular culture gets popular.
Jan. 13 2006 5:51 AM

The Shrimp Factor

Americans love it now more than ever. Why?

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Not skimpy with scampi

Early in the Three 6 Mafia song "Sippin' on Some Syrup," guest rapper Pimp C rhymes: "We eat so many shrimp/ I got iodine poisoning." It's a textbook case of hip-hop hyperbole, but the boast has some truth to it: Americans do love their decapod crustaceans, be they grilled, scampied, or slathered in cocktail sauce. Shrimp is, in fact, the most-consumed seafood in the United States. According to the National Fisheries Institute, the average American ate 4.2 pounds of the curved critters in 2004, up from 2.2 pounds in 1990. How did shrimp surpass canned tuna, the longtime seafood champ, and become the nation's favorite marine nibble?

We have a shrimp-farming revolution to thank. Today, around 90 percent of the shrimp consumed in the United States comes from overseas, and the overwhelming majority of those imports are farm-raised. (The leading shrimp-producing nations include China, Thailand, Vietnam, Brazil, and Ecuador.) Soaring production has depressed prices, which have fallen by $3 to $4 per pound over the past few years. That's terrible news for American shrimpers, who are scrambling to survive. But for those who can't get enough of Red Lobster's "Shrimp Lover's Tuesday" promotion, we are truly living in a golden age.

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Before the 1980s, less than 1 percent of the world's shrimp was farm-raised. Aquaculture experts hadn't yet figured out how to breed shrimp in captivity; the only reliable way to obtain eggs was to harvest them from shrimp caught in the wild. Shrimp farmers also weren't sure how best to combat shrimp viruses, or how to adjust water salinity to maximize growth.

Catching shrimp the old-fashioned way, meanwhile, was an expensive endeavor; the boats burn through huge amounts of diesel, and many of the most prized species can be caught only during particular seasons. As a result, unless you lived near a shrimping hotbed such as Louisiana's Gulf Coast, shrimp was a gastronomical luxury—the sort of thing served at places with tuxedoed waiters and valet parking.

That began to change during the Reagan years, as seafood technologists figured out how to hatch shrimp eggs under controlled conditions, then nurse them through the post-larvae stage. Viruses, the bane of shrimp aquaculture, were brought under control thanks to more sophisticated filtration and purification systems. Given the high market prices for shrimp, millions of acres of land—particularly mangrove forests—in Asia and Latin America were cleared to create shrimp ponds, where juvenile shrimp are released and grown to a salable size.

Buyers in the United States liked the farmed shrimp not only because it was cheaper than the wild version, but because it was available year-round. Plus, the shrimp could be grown to consistent sizes, which made for pleasingly uniform dinner-plate presentations.

Mid- and low-priced restaurants—like, say, Sizzler—that could never before have offered affordable shrimp began to advertise all-you-can-eat specials, often in combination with scrawny steaks. Superstores began to stock bags of frozen, precooked shrimp in their grocery aisles, allowing party hosts to offer platters of shrimp at their in-home shindigs. The real watershed, however, came in 1985, when the fast-food chain Popeyes introduced Cajun Popcorn Shrimp, a deep-fried dish meant to compete with McDonald's Chicken McNuggets. Suddenly, shrimp was an everyday food, rather than a special treat.

As prices continued to slide, shrimp consumption rose, nearly doubling over the last 15 years. Consumption of canned tuna, meanwhile, remained static—despite some annual fluctuations, an American in 2004 ate exactly the same amount of canned tuna (3.3. pounds) as in 1990. This is in part due to tuna's increasingly dicey reputation for mercury and in part because prices haven't changed much: Albacore, the most popular component in canned tuna, still must be caught in the wild. Also, though gourmet chefs love experimenting with fresh, sushi-grade tuna, they've never really taken a shine to the Starkist version—popcorn tuna, thankfully, has never become a menu staple. Many of those same chefs, however, have no qualms about using frozen, bagged shrimp in their recipes.

Shrimp passed canned tuna on the NFI's most-consumed list in 2001 and has been increasing its lead ever since. A big reason for the widening gap is consumption at casual-dining restaurants, where seafood is one of the fastest growing segments; according to the Technomic, a market-research firm, sales at the likes of Red Lobster will increase by 4 percent this year. Meanwhile, so-called varied-menu restaurants like Applebee's are adding dishes like the Shrimp Fettuccine Alfredo Bowl to satisfy the seafood yen of budget-conscious diners.

There's a substantial dark side, however, to shrimp's culinary triumph. Environmentalists assert that shrimp farms pollute ecosystems and destroy vital forests. American shrimpers, meanwhile, are being run out of business, as the deluge of farmed imports have cut prices for domestic shrimp by as much as 42 percent. In 2004, the U.S. government imposed tariffs to punish countries such as Thailand, Vietnam, and Ecuador for shrimp-dumping—that is, flooding the market with below-cost product in order to destroy American competitors. But the duties seem to have had little effect; Thailand, for one, claims that its exports to the United States have actually increased since the tariffs were put in place.

The American shrimping industry has also tried to fight back with a branding effort. The Wild American Shrimp campaign contends that shrimp caught in the Gulf of Mexico are tastier than shrimp raised in a Bangladeshi pond. But the strategy is problematic: Much of the shrimp consumed in the United States is either heavily sauced or deep-fried, so the nuances of flavor can be hard to distinguish. As long as breading and frying remains the preparation method of choice for American shrimp aficionados, Pimp C and millions of his fellow, less lyrically gifted diners probably won't sweat how and where their crustaceans were raised. Just keep 'em coming.

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and a columnist for Gizmodo. His first book, Now the Hell Will Start, is out now.