Behind the Scenes of “American” Seafood

This week, The Wall Street Journal published an op-ed questioning what qualifies everyday canned tuna as “American.” The piece investigated the complicated supply chains of three of the biggest tuna providers: StarKist, Bumble Bee Foods and Chicken of the Sea. What resulted, is a eye-opening look at the globalization of our seafood.

The story was prompted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s “buy American” policy for school lunches. By the policy’s standards, only StarKist tuna, which has a processing plant in American Samoa, is considered American. The other companies, Bumble Bee Foods and Chicken of the Sea, cannot be included in the program because their fishing vessels are not registered in the U.S. and some of the initial processing, such as skinning and gutting the tuna, is handled in Thailand.

bluefintuna2This gets tricky, however, when American jobs are added to the picture. StarKist vessels land their tuna in the same fishing waters as Bumble Bee Foods and Chicken of the Sea. But while StarKist tuna is cleaned and processed in an American Samoa plant, the plant workers are mostly non-Americans. In 2010, plant employees only averaged $4.76 an hour — about $3 below the U.S. minimum wage.

In contrast, the Bumble Bee Foods and Chicken of the Sea tuna, after being landed by foreign flagged vessels and partially processed in Thailand, gets sent to the United States and supports over 1,000 jobs in Georgia and California. U.S. workers at these canneries make between $12 and $18 per hour.

To make matters more confusing: StarKist is owned by Korea’s Dongwong Industries, Bumble Bee Foods’ parent company is based in the U.K. and Chicken of the Sea is Thai-owned.

The Wall Street Journal sums it up:

“The USDA says a foreign-owned company that catches some of its tuna on foreign-flagged boats and cans the tuna mostly with foreign workers who make less than the U.S. minimum wage qualifies as ‘American.’ But two foreign-owned companies that buy some of their tuna from foreign-flagged operations and can their tuna with American workers is ‘un-American.'”


This glimpse into the multifaceted seafood industry is a reminder of what goes on behind the scenes, before tuna cans and other products are stacked nicely at grocery stores across the country.

Buying American doesn’t always have to be so complex. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration monitors all seafood landed in the United States, and provides quarterly updates on the sustainability of these species. This information is available here or on the website FishWatch. Both the Marine Stewardship Council and the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s  SeafoodWatch, among other third-party certifications, are also helpful guidelines for domestic and global seafood.


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