Tri Marine execs: “StarKist is not the enemy — We're in this together”
Tri Marine International chief executive office and chairman Renato Curto believes it’s only a “small benefit” to be able to sell Buy American tuna products to the federal school lunch program — which has been described by The Hill publication as a “lucrative market” worth “millions of dollars in government sales.” However, he notes the Tri Marine business model is different from StarKist, and they have always supported StarKist.
Congressman Faleomavaega Eni has called for the territory to band together with him and other members of Congress to urge the U.S. Department of Agriculture not to weaken the current 100% Buy American provision, which is part of the USDA School Lunch Program and included in the federal Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2014.
StarKist’s competitors, Bumble Bee Foods and Chicken of the Sea International had lobbied strongly to change the USDA canned tuna provision, and lower the Made in America requirement from 100% to 75%, which would allow them to participate in the program as they currently clean and process their fish in foreign countries.
During last Friday’s news conference, Curto mentioned the USDA provision when he was talking about StarKist, saying that “we don’t have any substantial differences with StarKist — we’re neighbors, whom we love and respect. Actually we are their supplier, they buy a lot of their fish from us.”
He said the government is fully in support of Tri Marine’s local operations, Samoa Tuna Processors Inc., including the cannery plant slated to be operational later this year.
Additionally, STP along with Tri Marine and StarKist are in the “same boat rowing in the same direction” along with the government, “but we have ‘other forces’ that can work against us, so we have to be united against those forces.”
He also said StarKist “is not our enemy and we are not their enemy. And we have never been the enemy.” Additionally, StarKist is the number one canned brand in the U.S., probably the “strongest brand in the world in terms of knowledge, recognition by the consumers.”
“We want StarKist to be very strong. We will support their strength as much as we can, because if we have a good leader, then the industry is going to go in the right direction. And we’re all willing to follow that leadership, if they are able to show us, they can,” he said, adding that StarKist will always have the support of Tri Marine.
Asked by Samoa News for an example of “forces against... us”, Curto pointed out media reports of “the people fighting against us” as “Chicken of the Sea — which used to be here before — and Bumble Bee, and other forces in the market” pertaining to USDA's canned tuna provision.
“That is competition for StarKist”, he said adding “Chicken of the Sea and Bumble Bee are not our competitors. We are not a StarKist competitor, we are not a brand. We have a different business model. For some, it may be difficult to understand on where were are going and what we want to do.”
He went on to say the issue of "Buy American" products for school lunches, “in our opinion is something that perhaps Bumble Bee and Chicken of the Sea could have saved the effort and just continued to do what they’re doing. They're doing a good job in what they do.”
“They don’t need to be able to sell a few cases of [canned] tuna to the U.S. government by using fish that is processed outside of the United States. As far as we’re concerned, American Samoa is the United States... it’s a [U.S] territory. So we’re here because of that,” Curto said.
Tri Marine has made a choice “willingly and knowingly” to set up operations in American Samoa and “we expect that to be maintained as it is and we expect to receive the support from the local government as well as from [U.S.] Congress,” he said.
Curto also says that the accusation thrown around by Bumble Bee that StarKist is ‘monopolist’ - may be true for a short time, but we will be here.” (The Hill had quoted a Bumble Bee official saying that StarKist has a monopoly of the canned tuna for the school lunch program).
“We will be competing with StarKist for those programs. Is this going to be the industry? Come on, it’s a small amount,” he said, adding that Tri Marine believes that this is a “minor benefit to sell... American products to American schools.”
He again thanked the local government for its support as well as Congressman Faleomavaega Eni, who has been fighting for the local industry.
“We need all the support we can get. We have some advantage of being here,” he said referring to among other things, duty free export to the U.S. He concurred with a statement made by Lt. Gov. Lemanu Peleti Mauga who said “we are in this together, we’re going to be fighting together and we’re going in the same direction for the best results for everybody.”
Before the news conference, Lemanu led the Lolo Administration's delegation that toured STP as well as meeting with Curto and other Tri Marine officials.