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Tuna firms spar over school lunch access

The world’s largest tuna companies are making a splash in Washington with a fight over rules that keep some catches out of school lunches. 

StarKist and Tri Marine are clashing with Bumble Bee and Chicken of the Sea over the Agriculture Department’s strict Buy American standards for where tuna is cleaned, canned and shipped.

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Bumble Bee and Chicken of the Sea lose under the rules. Both companies have facilities that process tuna in the United States, but their product is also cleaned overseas. Under the USDA standards, their tuna cannot be served in schools, denying them access to a lucrative market.

StarKist, on the other hand, has a major operation in the U.S. territory of American Samoa. Tri Marine is building up a new facility in the territory as well.

The two factions are sparring over language in the House agricultural appropriations bill that would require the USDA to issue a report on how the department could revise its Buy American standards, including “the option for less than 100 percent of the value of the tuna product be United States produced.”

The language could be slipped into the omnibus spending bill that lawmakers aim to release sometimes this week. If it becomes law, that report could clear the way for Bumble Bee and Chicken of the Sea to begin selling to schools.

Millions of dollars in government sales are at stake, including for American Samoa, where tuna is a linchpin of the island economy.

The fight over the provision has become bitter, with both sides hurling charges of child labor and inhumane working conditions at the other.

“I suspect most members don’t have the facts yet on where Bumble Bee and Chicken of the Sea source their tuna. And if they would be informed, they would not be supportive of this language,” said Jim Bonham, chairman of the government affairs practice at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips.

Bonham lobbies for Tri Marine, founded in Singapore, and StarKist, which is headquartered in Pittsburgh but owned by Korea’s Dongwon Industries. StarKist’s tuna qualifies for the USDA’s school nutrition program because it’s processed in American Samoa, and Tri-Marine’s catch should as well once its plant is up and running.

But their competitors want in on the action.

“For years, we have been trying to revise these standards. So instead of 100 percent U.S. content, we would revise it down to 80 percent,” said Jeff Pike, CEO of Pike Associates, which lobbies for Bumble Bee. “We are buying fish from U.S. boats. We are working with U.S. fishermen. We have a U.S. factory and we are the only U.S.-owned major brand.” 

Tuna purchases by the U.S. government represent a significant chunk of change. The USDA’s purchases of canned and pouched tuna have equaled around $20 million per year over the past decade.

The provision under scrutiny could upend that market, critics argue.

“The parameters of the study are so narrow, we know what the outcome will be. It asks them [the USDA] to come up with multiple options to erode the Buy American standards,” Bonham said.

Bumble Bee’s advocate contends that changing the standards would simply bring competition to American Samoa’s tuna industry.

“There is a lot of sympathy for American Samoa. I’m convinced, even with the change, the government will still buy tuna from American Samoa,” Pike said. “Tuna is high in protein. Tuna is low in fat. What is your objection to putting competition into the school lunch program so kids can eat more tuna fish?” 

American Samoa has consolidated lobbying forces to protect its golden industry. Last summer, StarKist, Tri Marine, the Chamber of Commerce of American Samoa and others formed the Stronger Economy for American Samoa Coalition.

The group has worked to promote American Samoa, including highlighting a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette op-ed by Pittsburgh Steeler Troy Polamalu that discussed the “economic distress” in the territory.

Mark McCullough, a coalition spokesman, said loosening the Buy American standards would hurt American Samoa.

“Congress needs to be partnering with the islands’ public and private industry leaders on a new economic development plan, not costing more Americans their jobs by weakening what it means to buy America,” McCullough said.

Del. Eni Faleomavaega (D), American Samoa’s delegate on Capitol Hill, has sought to substitute the report language with his own measures that would target Bumble Bee and Chicken of the Sea. One proposal would have USDA study whether child labor was used to process tuna bought by the government.

Faleomavaega’s aides have given a PowerPoint presentation, obtained by The Hill, that cites human rights reports that blast Bumble Bee and Chicken of the Sea for using Thai facilities, where workers allegedly suffer terrible conditions while cleaning tuna.

“It is disgraceful to suggest that poor kids in Asia should be forced to provide tuna sandwiches for America’s school lunch program. Bumble Beeware! It is time for America to know the truth about Bumble Bee and Chicken of the Sea,” Faleomavaega said in a statement to The Hill.

In opposition to the language, Faleomavaega has sent letters to select members of the House and Senate Agriculture panels, Appropriations agriculture subcommittees and to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). The delegate has also asked for help from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), according to his office.

“I suspect most consumers don’t want to buy child labor tuna. … Bumble Bee and Chicken of the Sea are kicking a hornet’s nest here,” Bonham said.

StarKist’s critics said the company has used the Thai plants as well, but its supporters say the company has made sure not to sell any foreign-processed tuna to the U.S. government.

StarKist has had to contend with a Food and Drug Administration “warning letter” for poor workplace conditions in 2011. That halted its tuna sales to the USDA, but backers of the company say the issue has since been resolved.

Bumble Bee and Chicken of the Sea also have their supporters in Congress. Rep. Linda Sánchez (D-Calif.) introduced legislation last year that would loosen the Buy American standards for tuna.

“It simply provides more flexibility to the Department of Agriculture’s canned tuna purchasing program. The Tuna Competition Act is designed to bolster domestic industry,” said Mattie Muñoz, a Sánchez spokeswoman.

Bumble Bee has a tuna canning plant in Santa Fe Springs, Calif. — based in Sanchez’s district — that employs more than 300 workers.

“Congresswoman Sanchez is always happy to fight for job creators in the 38th District. However, it is important to note that this bill will help US tuna producers nationally,” Munoz said.