The Wall Street Journal today reported on efforts of the three most popular U.S. canned tuna brands to make their products eligible for United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) commodity purchases. Currently the USDA does not buy canned tuna from any of the three canned tuna producers–StarKist, Bumble Bee and Chicken of the Sea–for entitlement programs like the National School Lunch Program. In large part, the USDA’s position is based on a rule that any food purchased must be 100% produced in the U.S., and of the top three canned tuna companies, only StarKist canned tuna can make that claim. StarKist was, however, cited by the the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2011 for unsanitary conditions, and is therefore also currently ineligible.
The reality is that while these three companies are all waving their stars & stripes credentials in a bid to get in on the lucrative government purchase program, many consumers would likely question the depth of their patriotism. All three companies, while headquartered in the U.S. (and performing at least part of their production processes here), are foreign owned and rely on, at least in part, less expensive labor and more relaxed regulation outside the lower 48.
The largest of the three companies in terms of U.S. market share is StarKist with more than 35% of the U.S. canned tuna market. While the company cleans and cans its tuna in American Samoa, it is owned by Dongwon Enterprise of South Korea.
Bumble Bee, which claims roughly a quarter of the U.S. canned tuna market, cleans its tuna in Fiji, Mauritius, Columbia and Thailand, although it does can in California. Bumble Bee is owned by Lion Capital of the U.K.
Chicken of the Sea, which currently has a little more than 10% of the U.S. market, cleans its tuna in Thailand and then cans it in Georgia. The company itself is owned by Thai Union Frozen Product of Thailand.
Will the Real Debate Please Stand Up
While the current battle seems to be over which company is American enough, some consumer health and environmental advocates contend the real debate should be over mercury exposure secondary to canned tuna consumption. While the current FDA advice says that even sensitive populations (e.g., pregnant women and children) can eat a limited amount of canned tuna without significant risk, advocacy groups like The Mercury Policy Project say the current FDA advice is out-of-step with the best available science. They argue the government should not be using taxpayer dollars to put canned tuna in schools regardless of its point of origin because the health risks are too great.
Sources close to the FDA say the Agency is currently considering a revision of its advice on seafood consumption. Fishing industry advocates claim a report titled “Tuna surprise: Hidden risk in school lunches” was an “agenda driven rambling.”
No doubt there will be plenty more to come…Stay tuned to The Good Catch!