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Jan Lee headshot

Greenpeace: Tuna Recalls Aren't Big Enough

Words by Jan Lee

Last Thursday, Bumble Bee Foods announced a voluntary recall of 31,000 cases of canned chunk light tuna at risk for possible bacteria contamination. Another 2,745 cases of chunk light of varying sizes were also recalled by Chicken of the Sea, which contracts with the manufacturing facilities where the tuna was processed. According to a statement released by the Food and Drug Administration, the recall was made after the plant discovered an "equipment malfunction" and that the cans may not have been sufficiently cooked.

As of last Friday, one more manufacturer was added to that list: Texas brand Hill Country Fare announced that it will recall 224 cases of tuna that are suspected of being exposed to the same equipment malfunction.

Bumble Bee notes that the cans were processed in February at an undisclosed "co-pack facility not owned or operated" by the company. The FDA stressed that there have been "no reports of illness associated with these products to date," and that the recall is a voluntary measure to ensure consumer safety.

Greenpeace, however, says the recall doesn't go far enough. In a response, the environmental advocacy organization called attention to what it said Bumble Bee and Chicken of the Sea weren't addressing: human rights and environmental destruction issues perpetrated by tuna fleets.

"Yesterday, Bumble Bee and Chicken of the Sea recalled hundreds of thousands of tuna cans because of health concerns. Real concern about the health of oceans and workers would require a complete recall," Greenpeace said.

Greenpeace attempted for years to draw attention to issues that are often not talked about when it comes to sustainability in the seafood industry, such as the health and wellbeing of workers on the tuna seiners that deliver tuna to manufacturing companies.

"Last year, Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior ship sailed the high seas of the Pacific Ocean and boarded numerous ships that supply canned tuna to the United States. The Greenpeace team documented troubling conditions and labor practices on board" that suggested that workers were living in squalid conditions for inadequate wages. The organization says it also found evidence that Bumble Bee's contracted fleets turn a blind eye when sharks and other fish become ensnarled in tuna catch -- an issue that many large seafood companies say they now take steps to avoid. Greenpeace also alleges that some seiners use their holds for fuel during transit, meaning their tuna catch may be exposed to toxic chemicals before it is delivered to the manufacturer.

Greenpeace critics may question whether these issues have anything to do with the recent recall. But they highlight a perennial concern about today's seafood industry, in which the tuna seiners may not adhere to the same human rights and environmental expectations we place on the manufacturers we pay our money to.

And it's worth asking whether recalls that stem from a potentially serious manufacturing error last February (that wasn't relayed to consumers until late March), and Greenpeace's human rights and environmental findings on contracted seiners suggest that the tuna industry is ripe for another overhaul.

Recalls from processing errors have been relatively rare for Bumble Bee -- and for a good reason. Bumble Bee has, throughout much of its lengthy history, been fairly good at monitoring the product quality of what it produces in the factory. But that is because, in the past, the company often owned and operated its tuna-processing facilities and maintained strict control over where and how fish was harvested.

One of my first jobs years ago was as an English-Spanish interpreter for Bumble Bee, during its hire of some 700 cannery workers in San Diego. The company had bought-out the processing remains of a bankrupt plant, and was now retraining employees who had been hired decades earlier. The Spanish-speaking workers included people not just from Latin America, but also from Japan, Thailand and Italy, many of whom had learned Spanish as a second language (instead of English) decades earlier, in order to be able to communicate with their co-workers. Through careful, precise directions, they were schooled in the "higher quality" measures that Bumble Bee maintained, many of which meant huge changes for the antiquated cannery and its staff.

The crash of the U.S. tuna industry in the 1980s and 1990s changed all of that. It sent tuna seiners and plants to other parts of the world and transformed the U.S. seafood industry as we know it. Companies that used to serve as contracting processors (which came with a whole battery of quality-control experts to review and supervise output) now found themselves contracting out to other facilities, much as Bumble Bee has done recently.

But Greenpeace isn't the only lens through which the tuna industry's practices are being evaluated. In fact, consumer feedback -- not environmental organizations -- has largely been the megaphone to which seafood manufacturers listen.

Consumer Reports' recent publication of customer ratings suggest that things may be changing in how seafood is processed for both Bumble Bee canned tuna and Chicken of the Sea. It's worth asking if the quality of the product in the can evaluated by these consumers actually reflect the health of the tuna industry. Are our fishing procedures taking us past the safe mark when it comes to sustainable oceans? Many experts will say yes.

As to the recall and what to do with suspected cans, the FDA has called for consumers to "throw away the product." The agency did not suggest any means for the consumer to recoup money paid on the affected merchandise, other than to contact the manufacturer. Customers that access Bumble Bee's pull-down FAQ section are told that the company will reimburse purchases if the consumer supplies the label and proof of the affected UPC code.

For a complete list of the UPC codes that are affected by this recall, click on the following links. Please note that there are, in some cases, different product names and sizes affected:

Image credit: Flickr/Rusty Clark
Jan Lee headshotJan Lee

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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