Starkist defends ‘Made in America’ tuna claim

August 6, 2013, 4:51 pm

Starkist’s claim that its new brand of tuna is 'Made in America' elicited some questioning tweets from tuna company American Tuna and US seafood enthusiast Jonathan Gonzalez recently.

“What’s up with the new StarKist Made in America label,” Jonathan Gonzalez, a US seafood blogger who is seeking a position on one of the Pacific Fishery Management Council's (PFMC) subpanels, tweeted on Friday.

“Foreign flag vessels, using who knows what gear type, no traceability, canned in Samoa. Hilarious,” replied American Tuna, a US seafood company that fishes and cans albacore from the North Pacific.

The exchange was directed at Starkist’s launch of 'Made in America'-labeled 12 ounce cans of "chunk light" tuna in mid-July, to celebrate its 50th anniversary in American Samoa.

Is Starkist's product made America?

Starkist, a US subsidiary of the Korea-based tuna giant Dongwon, runs up against a key requirement in the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC)’s Bureau of Consumer Protection’s requirements for complying with the "Made in USA" standard.

According to the FTC,  a product should be “all or virtually all” made in the United States in order to be an accurate “Made in USA” claim. That means if the raw material makes up a significant part of the product's worth, the raw material must be of US origin. A gold ring, for instance, is not Made in the USA if the gold is not from the US, says the FTC. It also means the processing must be done in the US.

Under this regulation, goods produced in US territories including American Samoa, are entitled to the Made in USA label.

"The select Starkist products branded as Made in America adhere to Made in America labeling requirements as they only contain fish from US flagged vessels and are produced in American Samoa, a US territory," Starkist's corporate affairs director Mary Sestric told Undercurrent in an email.

Sestric added that Starkist's "Made in America" fish is caught in US waters as well as other parts of the South Pacific.

While it may seem important to know whether the majority of the fish is caught -- in US waters or outside of them -- it is not, as far as the US government is concerned. As long as a US-flagged vessel catches the fish, the US government considers it to be US fish, Peter Flournoy, a lawyer for commercial marine harvesters, told Undercurrent. This includes fish caught outside of US waters, he said.

Safe from questioning?

If Starkist's claims are correct, the brand's "Made in America" claim is accurate by US law.

If uncertainty arises on whether their claims are in fact accurate, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) would be tasked with investigating the claim, although it is not clear what criteria it would use.

"FDA has not defined 'Made in America', but when evaluating such a statement, FDA would consider its general misbranding provisions that state that a label cannot be false or misleading," a spokesperson for the FDA told Undercurrent. "FDA considers the particular circumstances involved when making a determination as to whether or not a food is properly labeled."

It is not clear whether the FDA would turn to the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC)'s guidelines on such a case, but for the purposes of considering whether a brand is Made in America, Undercurrent finds it helpful to consider the FTC's guidelines on what it takes to be considered "Made in USA", which are mapped out clearly on its website.

Canned tuna does not have as strict of labelling laws as fresh and frozen seafood, which are subject to the Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) requirement, enforced by the US department of agriculture (USDA), sources told Undercurrent.

Gonzalez, the blogger who called into question the brand's integrity on Twitter, hopes Starkist's claim gets investigated.

"I do believe the government should find out if Starkist's Made in America tuna is in fact caught by US flagship vessels," Gonzalez told Undercurrent. "Just like I believe the government should make the COOL [Country of Origin Labelling] program mandatory for all canned tuna brands."

Negligible Impact on competitors

The Western Fishboat Owners Association (WFOA) fishes albacore on the US west coast, catching on average 15,000 metric tons in June through October.

It would seem that Starkist's Made in America chunk light tuna would go head to head in competition with Wild Planet Foods and American Tuna, which provide albacore caught from the US west coast.

But Wayne Heikkila, executive director of WFOA, said that competition is not likely to develop since it uses albacore, whereas Starkist uses, skipjack.

"I don't think it hurts us because it's a whole different species — it's white meat," Heikkila said. "We'd probably make a fuss about it if they did albacore, but skipjack is caught in the Western Pacific Ocean and Indian Ocean — we don't really have cross-marketing. They're so different."

Bumble Bee's introduction of Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certified albacore tuna, however, is a target for the WFOA members, who hope to gain a piece of that pie. The product is currently Fijian albacore, which just gained MSC certification; but West Coast albacore would suit the brand as well, since it is also MSC certified, said Heikkela.

Currently, 70% of WFOA's members' catch volume gets shipped overseas, largely to Europe and Japan, where customers have a preference for tuna with high oil content.

WFOA has increased its domestic sales from 10% ten years ago to 30% today, and it hopes to increase it more. But for now, most tuna caught directly off the US west coast is sent overseas while "Made in America" tuna gets shipped in from a US territory.

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