The buzz on Bumble Bee

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Bumble Bee has been lobbying Capitol Hill since 2007 to introduce canned tuna made by child labor to America’s schoolchildren and troops under the guise of creating competition, reducing prices for government agencies and increasing the presence of a healthy school lunch option for our children. Chicken of the Sea (COS) joined the effort in 2009. Both companies clean their tuna in low-wage countries like Thailand where human rights abuses, including the use of child labor, are rampant in the processing industry.

Chicken of the Sea is owned by Thai Union, which is under investigation for employing 14- to 17-year-old migrants. Bumble Bee’s supplier in Thailand is Sea Value, and Unicord is part of the Sea Value group, which is also under heavy criticism for the same human rights and child labor violations. Bumble Bee owns a 10 percent share in Sea Value.

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The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) knows about human trafficking in the canned tuna industry and said no to the guise. However, with the support of Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), Bumble Bee and COS succeeded in getting language inserted in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2014, which now requires the USDA to submit a report within 60 days regarding potential ways that would allow a revision of the Master Solicitation for Commodity Procurements for the purchase of canned tuna. 

This is just a disingenuous way of requesting that the USDA weaken the USDA’s 100 percent Buy America provisions and permit canned tuna made by child labor into America’s school lunch program. In response, I called for a boycott on Jan. 14. And on Jan. 15, Rep. Kingston, who is my friend, clarified his intent regarding Buy America provisions. As reported by The Atlanta Journal-
Constitution
, Kingston stated, “I think the concern is, what can you do to not necessarily go into the Buy American provision, but are there alternatives?”

On Jan. 16, Chris Lischewski — CEO of Bumble Bee — perhaps troubled that he may be losing Kingston’s support, buzzed all about how Bumble Bee uses companies in Thailand to clean some of its tuna (The Hill’s Congress blog: “Sorry, Charlie, but that’s a fishy story”) and how he “knows” those companies don’t violate child labor standards because they sign a statement saying they don’t. Every schoolchild in America knows you can’t rely on an offender to tell the truth about whether or not they have offended. 

According to the Environmental Justice Foundation, Thailand’s processing workforce is “90 percent migrant and a large proportion is unregistered and trafficked.” As acknowledged by Thailand, its government cannot account for the well-being of its migrant workers.

The U.S. Department of Labor reported in 2012 that “the Government [of Thailand] lacks current nationwide data on child labor ... and children continue to be engaged in the worst forms of child labor, including in hazardous activities in ... seafood processing.” 

And so, while Chicken of the Sea and Bumble Bee opt to continue the un-American practice of having their canned tuna made by child labor in Thailand, StarKist chooses to clean its tuna in American Samoa. And yes, unlike Lischewski, every schoolchild in America also knows that American Samoa is part of the United States.

Canned tuna supplied by StarKist for America’s school lunch program is 100 percent made in the USA. On the rare occasion that StarKist uses frozen loins, it maintains a separate, segregated line in accordance with USDA guidelines to assure no frozen loins or foreign-cleaned fish is used in America’s school lunch program.

StarKist, a U.S. corporation and a subsidiary of the Dongwon Group of South Korea, abides by all U.S. labor and environmental laws. 

As for monopolies, according to a Government Accountability Office report, since 2006, companies like Bumble Bee that use child labor to make their canned tuna operate at a $7.5 million per year advantage and climb over companies like StarKist that make their canned tuna in the USA. 

Regarding safety standards, in 2013, both Chicken of the Sea and Bumble Bee 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.  

And so, while Bumble Bee’s slogan may be Eat, Live and BeeWell, I believe consumers should consider a new label for a company so intent on selling tuna made by child labor to America’s school children and troops: Bumble BeeWare.

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.