StarKist: Bumble Bee buzzing in error

Last week, Bumble Bee’s CEO, Chris Lischewski, responded to news reports in The Hill regarding his company’s attempts to modify the USDA’s current Buy American requirements for the school lunch program.  Mr. Lischewski, and his efforts across the seafood industry, have left a positive impact on both his business and the industry overall.  That said, in his haste to ‘set the record straight’ regarding this issue, there were a number of factual errors regarding StarKist that need to be corrected: 

1.    In saying that StarKist “enjoys this monopoly without having a single mainland U.S. processing facility,” Mr. Lischewski infers that StarKist is somehow manufacturing in a less-than-American location.  For the last 50 years, StarKist has owned and operated a tuna processing and canning plant in American Samoa, which is a United States Territory.  While Mr. Lischewski may want to denigrate American Samoa because it is not part of the ‘mainland’, it is nonetheless very much a part of the United States of America, just like Hawaii, Alaska, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Guam.

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2.    Mr. Lischewski claims that facilities in American Samoa are “exempt from federal minimum wage standards and OSHA workplace requirements.”  This is simply not true.  Companies operating in American Samoa are subject to the same OSHA requirements as companies in other parts of the United States.  As for wages, American Samoa’s local wage system was replaced in 2007 with the federal minimum wage scale.  By law, American Samoa must raise wages over time until its wages are equal to those in every other part of the U.S.

3.    StarKist is an American icon, headquartered in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  Although remaining a U.S. company that pays U.S. taxes, StarKist was indeed acquired in 2009 as a subsidiary of Korean-based Dongwon Industries.  This is no different than the acquisition of Mr. Lischewski’s Bumble Bee by UK-based Lion Capital in 2010.  Mr. Lischewski knows it is not the ownership of the company that matters for Buy American requirements.  Rather, it is where the product being purchased by the federal government is made and where its materials are sourced.  Simply put, StarKist manufactures a 100 percent ‘Buy America’ qualified product.  Bumble Bee does not.

4.    Mr. Lischewski asserts that StarKist purchases tuna loins processed in the same plants that his company uses -- this is incorrect.  StarKist does not purchase processed tuna loins from these, or any other plants.  In the last two years we have purchased a minimal amount of finished cans to supplement our American Samoan supply in order to meet peak demand cycles around diet season and Lent.  However, in absolutely no instance has StarKist purchased or used any imported tuna processed in another country for the federal government under the ‘Buy America’ act.

If Mr. Lischewski wants to compete for government business under the ‘Buy America’ guidelines, then by all means compete.  There’s plenty of room in American Samoa, as well as other American locations, that could use the jobs and the income that Bumble Bee could bring from fully processing tuna in the United States.  That’s what our neighbor, Samoa Tuna Processors, in American Samoa is doing.  Once their new processing and canning facility is up and running, we expect that Samoa Tuna Processors will bid for the school lunch program along with us.  If they should win it, then they’ve won it by effectively meeting all of the requirements of the Buy America program.  The rules and benefits for ‘Buy America’ are clear, and companies like StarKist and Samoa Tuna Processors are investing to meet them.  Bumble Bee and others are not, and rather than change their business, they are trying to change the rules.

Pogue is vice president of Marketing & Corporate Affairs for StarKist Co.