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Governor supports fight against tuna provisions in USDA bill

Gov. Lolo Matalasi Moliga has sent to Fono leaders a draft resolution that supports Congressman Faleomavaega Eni’s efforts to block any changes made to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's current canned tuna provision for the school lunch program.


Faleomavaega, for his part, has provided to the governor the latest update on this food fight in Washington D.C. after the Consolidated Appropriations Act of FY 2014 was signed into law and includes language which calls on the USDA to issue a report to the Congressional Appropriations Committee on potential ways to allow a revision for the purchase of canned tuna.


In a letter received yesterday by the Fono leaders, the governor says that he has prepared a draft resolution “to support our collective position” supporting Faleomavaega’s efforts “to block the attempts” by Bumble Bee Food and Chicken of the Sea International (COS) to “water-down the provisions of the Buy American act which threatens the operating security of the canneries and economic survival of the territory.”


Lolo describes lobbying efforts waged by Bumble Bee and COS as “very aggressive and powerful” and that ASG has its own people trying to collaborate with the Congressman’s Office to make known to Congress and everyone involved “our strong opposition.”


The governor asked the Fono leaders to review language of the resolution and make any adjustments deemed necessary. It’s unclear at this point as to when the final draft resolution will be presented to the Fono for review and consideration.


In a letter yesterday to Lolo, the Congressman provided an update on this issue, saying that the current USDA provision remains intact — currently all tuna products used in filling contracts awarded under the school lunch program must be produced in the U.S.


He also advised the governor that the USDA has 60-days from the day the Consolidated Appropriations Act was signed into law to provide a report to Congress “about potential ways that would allow a revision for the purchase of canned tuna” for the school lunch program.


Lolo was also informed that the Congressman’s Office is spearheading an effort among Congressional members to send a letter to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack urging that the “USDA suggest alternatives that do not weaken the 100% Buy American provision.”


Faleomavaega hopes the governor and the Fono will send a joint letter to Vilsack opposing any changes to the current provision.


Additionally, Faleomavaega’s staff has been directed to assist the governor during an upcoming visit to Washington D.C. next month should the governor wish to personally meet with USDA representatives.


Faleomavaega also reiterated his belief that the debate is about whether or not canned tuna made by child labor in Thailand should be allowed into America’s school lunch program, and added some new data.


He cited a report by the human rights group, Finnwatch, in which Thai Union—based in Thailand and owner of Chicken of the Sea—is under investigation for employing 14 to 17 years old migrants.


(According to last week’s edition of the Atlanta Journal Constitution publication, the company told Finnwatch that the kids had fake IDs from Myanmar and vowed to look into the allegations.)


For Bumble Bee, the Congressman said the cannery’s supplier in Thailand is Sea Value and Unicord is part of the Sea Value Group, which is also under heavy criticism for human rights violations including use of child labor. Moreover, Bumble Bee owns about 10% share in Sea Value, making the company complicit both directly and indirectly.


On the other hand, StarKist is the only one that continues to supply canned tuna for the USDA because it meets the current requirement of being 100% made in the U.S.A, he said.


“When and if StarKist uses frozen loins, it maintains a separate, segregated line in accordance with USDA guidelines to assure the USDA that no frozen loins or, foreign-cleaned fish, is used in America’s school lunch program,” he explained.


He acknowledged that StarKist delayed providing canned tuna to the school lunch program for about two years due to a U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) violation which created an opening for Bumble Bee and COS to make their case to USDA to allow for competition.


However, he said both companies have also “come under fire from the FDA”, adding that in 2013, the two companies issued a nationwide recall of their canned tuna products because their faulty seals could make the tuna vulnerable to spoilage and contamination which could sicken customers.


According to the Congressman, Bumble Bee’s plant in California was fined and cited for “egregious safety violations” following a 2012 incident where “a tuna worker was cooked to death.”


Faleomaveaga’s three-page letter was also copied to Fono members and Lt. Gov. Lemanu Peleti Mauga. He also provided local leaders with copies of his 2007 and 2010 letters to the USDA.