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Who better to ask that question than Dr. Steven Levitt, co-author of Freakonomics, the best-selling book (3 million copies and counting) that looks at unusual data sets to explain complex human behavior. The first chapter in Freakonomics, for example, asks this question: “What Do Schoolteachers and Sumo Wrestlers Have in Common?” His answer: They both cheat!
On August 27, 2007, Dr. Levitt set up a survey at his website that asked this question: “Why Are We Eating So Much Shrimp?”
He introduced the survey with this statement: “We need your help with a little social experiment. Between 1980 and 2005, the amount of shrimp consumed by Americans nearly tripled, from 1.4 pounds per person to 4.1 pounds per person. ...Without researching the topic via Google or other means, and without reading the comments that other blog readers have left, think about why shrimp consumption has gone up so much. Leave your answer, along with your occupation, your college major, your gender and your age in the comments section.”
As of October 25, 2007, 1,095 people responded to the survey. Not everyone followed Levitt’s instructions. Many did not provide their occupation, age, sex or college major. I rejected 161 of the replies because they were either duplicates, non-answers, or did not provide gender information, winding up with 944 replies, instead of the original 1,095.
I read all of them at least twice. On the first reading, each time a new reason for eating shrimp was mentioned, I added it to a list. By the time I finished, I had a list of 57 reasons for eating shrimp. On the second reading, with the list in front of me, every time a respondent mentioned one of the reasons, I tallied it on my list. Some people gave just one reason, others gave as many as nine. The average was two or three.
“Dropping Prices” was the most frequent reason given for the increase in shrimp consumption, mentioned 410 times out of a total 2,084 responses, approximately 20% of all responses. “Healthy” finished a distant second with 224 votes.
The respondents were students, professionals, writers, attorneys, professors, computer geeks, public relations people and just plain folks. Of the 944 respondents in my data set, 689 were males (average age 34.4) and 255 were females (average age 33.3 years).
Here are the top 20 reasons given for eating more shrimp:
Some Sample Responses
#126—Chris Newman, male, 37, physician assistant, BA philosophy: Over my lifetime, seafood has come to be seen as healthy and good. But most fresh seafood is expensive and requires skill to prepare. Not shrimp- it is cheap and easy to cook (or buy precooked). Also, while many people want to like seafood, they don’t like “fishy” tastes or smells. Shrimp has neither.
#168—Andrej, male, 28, English major, paralegal: I eat more shrimp because:
1. It was a rare delicacy for me when I was a child. For my lower-middle-class family, shrimp meals were too expensive to have more than once every two months. Now that I’m older and buy on my own, the price of frozen shrimp does not seem that high.
2. Shrimp is a frequently an upsell-able addition to any restaurant meal. If I’m going to add the chicken to my Caesar salad for $2 more, why not spend $3 more and get the shrimp?
3. I have abnormally low cholesterol levels, so I’m not worried about overdosing on cholesterol-rich shrimp (175 milligrams in 3 ounces, according to one source). Also, I need the protein in my diet.
4. Shrimp seem to be prominent in many Asian dishes, and I eat more Asian food than most people, living with an Asian roommate as I do.
So, my answer for why America eats more shrimp now would be a combination of all of my reasons: lower (real or apparent) price, appearing in many foods, and Atkins-inspired eating.
#173—Maureen, female, 32, fundraiser for international development organization, BA and MA in international economics and development:
Shrimp is relatively cheaper than before.
Shrimp was previously a moderate luxury food associated with the upper and upper-middle class (and everyone wants to eat like the rich, no?).
Changes in general food preferences toward seafood and international cuisine have benefited the shrimp industry.
Shrimp hasn’t received the bad press that fish has, in spite of the negative environmental impact of shrimp farming.
#208—Richard Thomas: I’ve never seen any advertising for shrimp—except the occasional shrimp dish shown in an ad for TGIF and similar restaurants. But I notice that shrimp is in and on a lot of dishes. It’s in lots of pasta dishes; it’s on pizza and in shrimp salad sandwiches. It seems to have become a key ingredient in restaurants and at events. Also, since most shrimp now is farm-grown, there doesn’t seem to be so much concern about damage to the ecosystem or depletion of shrimp stocks (although I suppose farm-grown foods create their own set of concerns). Finally, of course, shrimp is cheap. I understand that the USA still imposes import tariffs on Brazilian-grown shrimp, without which the price to the consumer would be even lower. But it no longer is a specialty dish.
#252—Tawny, female, 28, business owner, geology major: We’ve been told that seafood is good for us (omega-3 fatty acids); shrimp are nicely small, self-contained units for appetizers and hors d’oeuvres and have come to be viewed as an expensive or at least a classy food; changes in speed of shipping has made it feasible and cheaper for all Americans to eat fresh seafood (not just those on the coast); and Americans simply eat more of everything these days.
#477—Dan, male: I’ll bet you can’t eat just one! The little bastards are addictive.
#980—Grad Student, female, 28, geology major: It’s not rocket science. There are massive shrimp farms in Asia that drove the price of shrimp down worldwide. Price went down and all of a sudden shrimp went from a luxury to a standard food item.
#1044—Steve, male: This is an interesting case of an outside force affecting supply and demand. The outside force: Red Lobster. Until Red Lobster came along, shrimp was a relative delicacy and found only in fancy restaurants and high-end cocktail parties. Red Lobster was the catalyst for the ubiquity of shrimp. The company pushed suppliers for a steady supply of inexpensive shrimp. This led to shrimp farms and the globalization of the shrimp industry. Exposure to inexpensive shrimp stoked demand, driving supply even higher. The marketplace in action. Besides, there are lots of ways you can make shrimp.
#1072—Shiela MacGee, female: Ah, shrimp. As a caterer there is one big reason. Shrimp have an image of class and exclusivity. Secondly they have been CHEAP and they are very easy finger food. They also look very nice in arrangements on buffet tables. ...Prices for other crustaceans have skyrocketed. Many clients want only European or domestic shrimp, having lost confidence in Chinese shrimp. I tend to agree as I can taste a difference and personally only eat local critters. But my #1 reason is that they are cheap—with lots of flash.
Some Discarded Reponses
#594—Jason C., male, 27, student, electrical engineering: This is a trick! They just want your age, gender, college major and occupation for advertising purposes.
#775—Gordon, male: Here is a thought: seems to me that shrimp is not as “shrimpy” as it used to be (i.e., it has become more bland), so maybe consumption has gone up among those who used to be put off by its taste and smell. Perhaps by deliberately breeding less pungent species, marketers are now successfully selling to those who didn’t like it before.
#965—Philip Tramdack, male, 58, university library administrator, major French literature: Shrimp is a mature food and I am mature.
Some Responses from People We Know
#1090—John Sackton, male [Editor, Seafood.com]: The one-pound bags of peeled or EZ peel shrimp in the supermarkets are a major reason. They make a quick and simple dinner, and are priced right. Very easy to prepare.
#934—Dallas Weaver, male, 67, aquaculture, water treatment: The evolution of shrimp aquaculture is now to the point where production costs of farmed shrimp are less than the cost of the destructive bottom-trawling wild harvesting methods. This has induced a price war between shrimp farmers and fishermen, so that now neither side has a significant profit margin, but the shrimp farmers are winning even in the face of tariffs imposed by the USA commercial shrimpers.
Shrimp farming has an FCR — feed conversion ratio — (dry weight feed in/whole animal weight out) in the 1.5 range while chickens are in the 2.25 to 2.75 range and pigs and cows are a lot higher. Cold-blooded aquatic animals don’t have to keep warm or fight gravity, hence they are more efficient feed converters. When you combine economic advantage and high consumer acceptance, you gain market share.
Note that the regulatory situation in the USA has prevented most aquaculture from developing in this country, and that includes shrimp farming. Our government spends millions of dollars per year on shrimp aquaculture research, but all that technology is used outside the USA. Worldwide, aquaculture is the fastest growing sector of agriculture—except in the USA. The FCR advantage of almost all aquaculture over land animals is becoming even more important as the increasing population and wealth stresses the agricultural potential of the world’s lands.
You can read all the responses at the web address below. It’s big site and that takes a long time to open (about a minute with broadband) because it contains all 1,095 responses .
Sources: 1. New York Times: Opinion. Why Are We Eating So Much Shrimp? (http://freakonomics.blogs.nytimes.com/2007/08/27/why-are-we-eating-so-much-shrimp/). Steven D. Levitt. August 27, 2007. 2. Bob Rosenberry, Shrimp News International, November 3, 2007.