The seafood industry, already suffering from a drop in consumption by U.S. consumers, now faces sharply higher prices for shrimp, thanks to a disease that's taking a heavy toll on the tasty crustacean.
In March, shrimp prices jumped 61% from a year earlier, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, thanks to a bacterial disease known as early mortality syndrome. It doesn't affect humans but it's killing off shrimp beds in Southeast Asia, a major global supplier.
Restaurant chains are hesitant to pass on too much of the higher cost to consumers who still haven't fully regained their appetite for dining out, Bloomberg News reports.
The shrimp inflation crisis comes at a particularly bad time -- Lent, a season when many consumers would be expected to switch to seafood for at least a few days.
Taking a slightly longer view, the Wall Street Journal notes that U.S. consumers have been steadily turning away from seafood, even as they seek out foods they think are healthier and less likely to pack on the pounds:
The average U.S. consumer ate 14.4 pounds of seafood in 2012, the last year for which figures are available, down from 15 pounds in 2011 and a record high 16.6 pounds consumed in 2004. That's far less than the average 82 pounds of chicken, 57 pounds of beef and 46 pounds of pork. Americans consume in a year.
That puts us way behind countries like Japan, where the average consumer eats 120 pounds of fish a year. Spain is close behind at 96.
Why? Well, cost may be a factor. Seafood is expensive to produce -- or catch -- and therefore more expensive to buy than other protein sources. The Journal speculated that consumers are also concerned about conflicting advice on mercury and other contaminants in seafood.
Unmentioned is a lack of government and organized industry support. The American beef industry is supported by the Beef Board a semi-governmental agency that's funded by a $1-per-head "checkoff fee." In other words, each time a steer is slaughtered, a dollar gets thrown into the kitty and is "checked off" by the bean -- or in this case, beef -- counters. The money is used for "consumer education," which often translates into lobbying. Pork and other mammal meats benefit from similar organizations.
The beef industry also has a private trade association and lobbying arm, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, which doesn't take kindly to anyone who tries to rustle even a t-bone's worth of market share away from good old red-blooded beef. And chicken? It's so cheap and versatile that it doesn't need much promotion.
Seafood? Forget about it. When's the last time you saw a talking-head pontificating on behalf of the nation's fishermen?
While the cattlemen have long since formed some pretty effective posses, it's the fishermen who are out there on the watery version of the lone prairie all by their lonesome. They're mostly loners who wholesale their catch to the local fish wholesaler, which in turn slices and dices it to restaurants, food-service companies and buyers for large packagers.
The giant factory ships that Greenpeace loves to hate are efficient, as are the much-reviled fish farms, but costs remain much higher than mammal meats and fowl.
Of course, there's always tofu. Or beans.