Boycott canned tuna made by child labor

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As an Asia-Pacific American and former chairman and current ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific, I hope that Congress and consumers will boycott efforts by Bumble Bee and Chicken of the Sea to introduce canned tuna made by child labor into America’s school lunch program.

Bumble Bee and Chicken of the Sea are disqualified from providing canned tuna to the Department of Agriculture’s school lunch program because both companies clean their tuna in factories in Thailand, which use child, trafficked, and other forced and exploited labor. The Environmental Justice Foundation says “the processing industry in Thailand does not just have a problem with human rights abuses, but is built on it.” This brutal business practice is a gross violation of the Department of Agriculture’s Buy America program and is simply un-American.

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USDA provisions exist to ensure that federal dollars are spent on products that are available and produced 100 percent in the United States. Buy America provisions also exist to ensure the highest quality goods are being purchased by the U.S. government, and they are being manufactured in a manner consistent with American policies as related to child labor, working conditions and wages.

StarKist, which operates in the U.S. Territory of American Samoa, complies with Buy America provisions. At StarKist Samoa, our workers fully manufacture canned tuna from the whole fish through to the final, labeled product. On occasion, if enough whole fish is not available, StarKist has in the past used frozen loins to supplement the whole fish. However, in compliance with USDA regulations, StarKist uses segregated lines to make sure only whole fish processed 100 percent in the U.S. is used for the school lunch program. 

Despite misinformation put forward by Bumble Bee and Chicken of the Sea, American Samoa’s workers are local citizens and legal residents from the neighboring country of Samoa. StarKist abides by U.S. labor and environmental laws, and pays workers in accordance with federal minimum wage standards as determined by the U.S. Congress, unlike tuna factories in Thailand where Bumble Bee and Chicken of the Sea clean their fish. 

In response to proponents who say there is no competition in America’s school lunch program, Tri Marine is making a $50 million investment in American Samoa. Tri Marine intends to use the same business model as StarKist by cleaning the whole fish through to the final, labeled product. 

And as for those trying to take advantage of a temporary interruption of canned tuna to America’s school lunch program due to a warning letter StarKist received from the Food and Drug Administration in 2011 about deviations from the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control of Point and Low Acid Food requirements, the suspension has been lifted and had nothing to do with the debate at hand.

Furthermore, Bumble Bee and Chicken of the Sea have come under fire from the FDA due to problems with seams on their can lids not meeting safety standards. In 2013, both Bumble Bee and Chicken of the Sea issued a nationwide recall of their canned tuna products because their faulty seals could make the tuna vulnerable to spoilage and contamination, which could sicken consumers. Tragically, in 2012, a tuna worker was cooked to death at Bumble Bee’s plant in California, and the company was fined and cited for egregious safety violations. 

Once you unveil the truth, it is crystal clear that proponents of changing the Buy America requirements for canned tuna in our school lunch program are the same proponents who believe poor children should sweep floors in exchange for their lunch. It is bad enough that child labor and human rights abuses exist. But it is disgraceful to suggest that poor kids in Asia or anywhere else should be forced to provide tuna sandwiches for America’s school lunch program. 

Faleomavaega has been the nonvoting delegate representing American Samoa in the House since 1989. He is ranking member of Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific.