Tags: tuna | market | school | lunches

Food Fight Heats up Over Lucrative Tuna Market

Image: Food Fight Heats up Over Lucrative Tuna Market

Wednesday, 08 Jan 2014 06:58 PM

By Amy Woods

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The U.S. Department of Agriculture's rigid "Buy American" rules on tuna are having a negative impact on companies that can the favorite fish — specifically within the school-lunch market, The Hill reports.

The rules require tuna makers to clean, can, and ship their product in U.S.-run facilities. The companies caught in the regulatory net: Bumble Bee, Chicken of the Sea, StarKist, and Tri Marine.

Bumble Bee and Chicken of the Sea are the fish out of water when it comes to the school-lunch market because both companies clean their tuna overseas.

StarKist operates in American Samoa, a U.S. territory where Tri Marine is building a facility.

An agricultural-appropriations bill in the House would require the USDA to come up with a revision to its "Buy American" benchmark so more companies could compete in the lucrative school-lunch market. The bill could be released as early as this week.

Making the issue more contentious are concerns about child-labor laws and cruel conditions for tuna-factory workers.

"I suspect most members don't have the facts yet on where Bumble Bee and Chicken of the Sea source their tuna," said Jim Bonham, of Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, a Los Angeles-based law firm that lobbies for StarKist and Tri Marine.

American Samoa officials have criticized both Bumble Bee and Chicken of the Sea for using facilities in Thailand unfit for employees.

"It is disgraceful to suggest that poor kids in Asia should be forced to provide tuna sandwiches for America's school-lunch program," American Samoa Delegate Eni Faleomavaega told The Hill. "It is time for America to know the truth about Bumble Bee and Chicken of the Sea."

American Samoa officials also have hired a contingent of lobbyists to protect its share of the $20 million-a-year U.S. tuna industry, forming the Stronger Economy for American Samoa Coalition.

"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," said Mark McCullough, a coalition spokesman.

Proposed language altering the "Buy American" provision includes "the option for less than 100 percent of the value of the tuna product be United States produced."

American Samoa officials oppose the language and have sent letters to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and others on Capitol Hill.

Rep. Linda Sánchez last year introduced legislation to change the "Buy American" standards.

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

Bumble Bee has a cannery in Santa Fe Springs, Calif., which is part of Sánchez's district.
"Congresswoman Sanchez is always happy to fight for job creators in the 38th District," Munoz said. "However, it is important to note that this bill will help U.S. tuna producers nationally."

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