Congressman Faleomavaega announced today that by September 30, 2004 and as a result of the FY2004 Omnibus spending bill which amended the 2002 U.S. Farm Bill, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) will require country of origin labeling (COOL) for the retail sale of wild and farm-raised fish, including canned and pouch tuna. By 2006, the USDA will also require country of origin labeling on all other perishable agricultural products, including beef, pork, vegetables, etc.
“In order for a can or pouch of tuna to bear a “Product of the U.S.A.” label, the tuna must be caught by a U.S. flag ship and processed in the United States or its Territories. If the tuna is caught by a foreign flag ship and/or processed in a foreign country, then the label must inform consumers accordingly,” Congressman Faleomavaega said.
“For example, if our canneries purchase fish from foreign vessels, the label must explicitly state what foreign country caught the fish. If the tuna was caught by a Taiwanese flag ship and processed in American Samoa, the label would read, ‘Caught in Taiwan, Processed in the U.S.A.’ If the tuna is partly processed in a foreign country (and this includes loin production), the label must also explicitly state this fact.”
“In brief, Congress believes that American consumers have the right to know whether or not their food products are products of the U.S.A. and this is why the COOL program has been established. The intent of the COOL program is to provide consumers with information on which to base their purchasing decisions.”
“On Feb. 3, 2004, I held a meeting with USDA officials to discuss the impact this program may have on our canneries in American Samoa. It is my understanding that all U.S. canneries, including Chicken of the Sea/Samoa Packing, StarKist, and Bumble Bee, will have to change their current labels to comply with this new law,” Faleomavaega said.
“Because our canneries purchase about 30% of their fish from foreign flag ships and continue to ship frozen loins into the Territory, the USDA country of origin labeling regulations will require that our canneries label each load according to its origin. This process of multiple labeling could become labor intensive and cost prohibitive.”
“In an effort to assist our canneries, I have written to Chicken of the Sea/Samoa Packing, StarKist, and the U.S. tuna boat owners and requested information regarding the amount and origin of fish being processed in American Samoa. I have also requested information about how many tons of frozen loins are offloaded in the Territory and from what countries these loins are being purchased.”
“While I do not believe our canneries should be placed at a disadvantage by the added cost of implementing the COOL program, I am deeply concerned about the number of loins that are being shipped to American Samoa for processing and I fear what this means for the Territory. The use of precooked tuna loins as a raw material in canning operations significantly influences the amount of labor needed in the production process. The production of loins, including the butchering and cleaning steps, accounts for up to 80% of the cost of labor in a full-scale cannery.”
“This means that if a cannery buys loins instead of whole fish it can substantially reduce its labor costs. In other words, the more loins you send to American Samoa, the less labor you need in our canneries. Less labor means downsizing and downsizing means many of our cannery workers will be out of jobs if StarKist and Samoa Packing continue to ship loins into American Samoa.”
“Our U.S. tuna boat owners are also at risk as a result of this trend,” the Congressman said. “The U.S. tuna fishing fleet contributes more than $22 million per year to American Samoa’s economy and supplies 70% of the tuna processed in our canneries. On the other hand, tuna caught by foreign vessels and offloaded for loin production prior to arriving in American Samoa is contributing little to our economy.”
“A clear example of this is the tuna loin operation in the Marshall Islands. Approximately 10,000 tons of tuna is offloaded per year in the Marshalls. Almost all of this fish is caught by foreign flag ships including Taiwanese, Chinese, and Japanese fishing vessels. The Marshallese cut, clean, and convert this fish to loins. In fact, the Marshallese process 45 tons of loins per day, 300 tons per month and most of these loins are bought by StarKist, shipped to American Samoa and packed directly into cans. Samoa Packing does the same thing by shipping tuna loins from its canning operations in Thailand to American Samoa.”
“Both StarKist and Chicken of the Sea are doing this to save labor costs. Both canneries have to pay our workers on average $3.60 an hour to convert whole fish to loins while workers in Thailand and the Marshall Islands do this work for less than $1.50 per hour. A new FCF plant, soon to open in Papua New Guinea and owned by a foreign group including Taiwanese, European and U.S. investors, will pay workers even less to convert whole fish to loins and these loins will also be sent to American Samoa where, again, our Territory will receive little compensation. Our workers will not be paid to convert the whole fish to loins and our small business owners will see no revenues like the ones brought in from the U.S. tuna boat owners who purchase supplies, gasoline, etc. when offloading whole fish in the Territory.”
“While I understand the need for our canneries to reduce costs,” Faleomavaega said, “I cannot and will not support an increase in loins being shipped from foreign countries into American Samoa for use in our canneries. This trend must stop or American Samoa must be compensated for revenue lost as a result of this backdoor attempt to reduce our labor force, suppress our wages, and allow foreign countries to send their tuna into the U.S. exempt from duty.”
“Again, it is clear that the only reason our canneries are doing business in American Samoa is because any tuna processed in American Samoa is exempt from duty when exported to the U.S. Other countries, including Thailand, Papua New Guinea, etc., cannot export canned tuna duty free and this is why our canneries are dependent on American Samoa, for now.”
“However, this may not always be the case and this is why my position on loins is clear. Like Chicken of the Sea and StarKist, American Samoa must also maximize its revenues while it can and I am hopeful that given our mutual need we will be able to work out a compromise on the COOL regulations.”
“To be helpful, I have informed the U.S. tuna industry and our local leaders that I am willing to introduce legislation which would amend the COOL regulations for whole fish purchased from foreign flag ships provided we work out a compromise which limits the amount of frozen loins that can be offloaded in American Samoa. At this time, I am hopeful that our canneries and U.S. tuna fishing fleet will work with me to resolve this issue in a way that maximizes their profits and protects American Samoa’s workers and economy for generations to come,” the Congressman concluded.