Shrimp skewers (© antares71-E+-Getty Images)
It's not safe being a major food source for humans these days. In addition to reports that a pork virus has spread from Asia and Europe to the U.S., killing piglets in 15 states, another worry is a bacterial infection that has wiped out much of the shrimp cultivated in Asia, a major source for U.S. restaurants and supermarkets. And American consumers could soon see the impact of these shortages in terms of higher prices.

The infection is called early mortality syndrome (EMS), and it poses no threat to human health. According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, EMS has caused "die-offs" over the past two years in countries such as Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam and China. The impact on the $13.3 billion industry could be devastating.

"Infected shrimp ponds experience extremely high levels of mortality early in their growing cycle -- as high as 100 percent death rates in some cases," the U.N. noted in a May press release.

EMS first emerged in 2009. A year later, outbreaks were getting serious. Shrimp farms in China suffered 80% losses in 2011, and this year production in Thailand is off 30%. And some areas in the eastern part of the country have seen 60% declines, according to the U.N.  Thailand is the biggest supplier of shrimp to the U.S., which imports most of this tasty crustacean.

"Competitors such as India and Ecuador have been attempting to pick up the slack, though their output still trails that of Thailand," The Wall Street Journal said.

The impact on U.S. consumers is mixed so far.

A spokesman for Kroger (KR), the largest grocery chain, told the paper that EMS is "affecting all retailers, including us," though he declined to be more specific. Landry's chief financial officer Rick Liem told The Journal it may have to "selectively raise prices." It owns the McCormick & Schmick's and Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. restaurant chains. Red Lobster parent  Darden Restaurants (DRI) told the paper it doesn't plan to raise prices because it expects shrimp costs to drop by year-end.

Scientists, however, are worried that the disease might spread to shrimp farms in Africa and Latin America, where the industry also is big employer.

--Jonathan Berr does not own shares of the listed stocks. Follow him on Twitter @jdberr.


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