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Price surge for shrimp costing diners

– Penny pinchers will be forgiven for skipping the shrimp scampi this season.

Prices for shrimp have jumped to a 14-year high in recent months, spurred by a disease that’s ravaging the crustacean’s population. At Noodles & Co., a chain with locations across the country, it costs 29 percent more to add the shellfish to pastas this year, and shrimp-heavy dishes at places like the Cheesecake Factory are going up as well.

Restaurant chains, already struggling with shaky U.S. consumer confidence, are taking a profit hit as prices climb. Even worse, the surge is happening during the season of Lent, when eateries rely on seafood to lure Christian diners who abstain from chicken, beef and pork on certain days.

“It’s coming at a tough time for the industry,” said Andrew Barish, a San Francisco analyst at Jefferies. “With the Lenten season, what you’ll see out there is a lot of promotions with seafood, and usually shrimp is a big part of that.”

In March, shrimp prices jumped 61 percent from a year earlier, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The climb is mainly due to a bacterial disease known as early mortality syndrome. While the ailment has no effect on humans, it’s wreaking havoc on young shrimp farmed in Southeast Asia, shrinking supplies.

The syndrome has taken a toll on both restaurants and supermarkets, affecting a food that Americans increasingly see as a healthy alternative to meat. While shrimp is relatively high in cholesterol, it’s low in fat and high in protein and omega-3 fatty acids. U.S. consumption reached 3.8 pounds per person in 2012, twice the amount in 1984, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries.

James Johnson, a Jewel-Osco supermarket shopper in Chicago, has noticed the price increase. He’s been cutting back on one of his favorite dishes – shrimp and potato soup – because of the cost.

“I haven’t made it in a while,” the 29-year-old said. “Shrimp looks expensive.”

The Red Lobster chain helped popularize the crustacean in 1974 when it introduced popcorn shrimp nationally. Thirty years later, the restaurant debuted Endless Shrimp, an all-you-can-eat promotion. Even fast-food chains have sold the shellfish over the years.

Burger King Worldwide Inc., for instance, offered shrimp salads in 2004.

At Noodles, it now costs $3.34 to add the shellfish to a meal of pasta or pad thai, compared with $2.59 last year.

“We still want to at least offer it as choice,” Chief Executive Officer Kevin Reddy said. “As soon as the costs begin to normalize, we’ll return to the regular price.”

Cases of early mortality syndrome, which destroys the digestive systems of young shrimp, were first reported in China in 2009, said Donald Lightner, a professor of animal and comparative biomedical sciences at University of Arizona in Tucson.

The disease, which kills about 90 percent of the shrimp it infects, traveled from China to Vietnam to Malaysia and then to Thailand, he said. Cases also were reported in Mexico last year, Lightner said.

Thailand was the U.S.’s largest shrimp supplier until last year, when its exports to America shrank 38 percent. India took over as the U.S.’s biggest source of shrimp.

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