Since tuna fish became a staple food for the Baby Boomer Generation, the tuna fish industry has enjoyed an outsized role in the American diet. The United States consumes 29 percent of all canned tuna produced worldwide, and until recently, tuna was the most-consumed seafood in the American diet. However, tuna is far from all-American. Lacking US citizenship in terms of processing, corporate ownership, and catch, canned tuna fish, in particular the Starkist brand, should no longer be deemed a domestic product by US policy.
The tuna used in casseroles of the 1960s was primarily produced in America. San Diego was the tuna capital of the United States, employing around 40,000 fishermen and cannery workers. But, as with car manufacturing and other American industries, high labor costs led tuna canneries to outsource. Now, less than one percent of the tuna eaten in the US is caught in American waters, and none of the top three canned tuna companies are domestically owned, nor do they operate canneries in the 50 states.
American Samoa – a unincorporated territory of the United States – became the chief tuna outsourcing destination thanks to the Central, Western, and South Pacific Fisheries Development Act of 1972. This legislation aimed to make American Samoa and other Pacific islands “more self-sufficient” and gave Congress the power to authorize the development of tuna canneries on those islands. In particular, this meant the United States would provide American Samoa with financial assistance to aid the transition to more advanced fishing techniques and gear to increase yield. Given the present-day prominence of the tuna industry in American Samoa, the act was a success. Current trade policy also continues to prop up the industry – goods can travel through American Samoa to the mainland United States duty-free, as long as at least 35 percent of their value has been added in American territory. For tuna, this value is added in its processing and canning in American Samoa.
In 2007, yet another federal law transformed the tuna industry – this time pushing tuna canning even further off American shores. The Fair Minimum Wage Act increased the minimum wages in American Samoa, providing a 40-cent wage increase annually until the wage floor was on par with that in the US. Chicken of the Sea and Bumblebee, two of the three largest tuna producers, responded by abandoning their canneries in American Samoa in favor of Thailand’s cheap labor market, where workers were paid an hourly wage of 88 cents. However, even with higher labor costs, the third-largest, Starkist, has maintained its American Samoan cannery, allowing its products to qualify for government purchase under the “Buy American Policy.”
This policy, developed through the Buy American Act of 1933, states that the government must favor domestically-produced goods when making government food purchases that end up in USDA foods programs like school cafeterias or summer camps. Section 32 of the Farm Bill provides funding for the USDA to buy and distribute fish, meat, and produce to these programs in an effort to promote consumption of domestic products and alleviate market-stymying surpluses. However, a product caught and canned thousands of miles away from American coasts is hardly aiding the domestic food market.
American Samoa, like the tuna it processes, is only American in name. Geographically, the island is 4750 miles off the US shoreline – far closer to Auckland than Honolulu or San Diego. As an unincorporated territory, its Congressional delegate does not vote, and residents must apply in order to become US citizens. In fact, their main connection to US politics is tuna; American Samoa Democratic delegate Eni Faleomavaega receives the majority of his campaign financing from Starkist. Nevertheless, American Samoa still qualifies as a US production site under “Buy American.” As a result, all of the tuna served to American schoolchildren under the National School Lunch Program, one of the main recipients of government food purchases, is Starkist brand.
In designating Starkist tuna as “American,” the Buy American policy not only overlooks the thousands of miles between Pago Pago canneries, domestic consumers and Starkist’s Korean parent company, but also where the fish are actually coming from. Nearly two-thirds of tuna is caught in the Pacific, and all species of tuna are defined as a highly-migratory, meaning they swim through a wide range of the open ocean over the course of its lifetime. Even if tuna were still canned in San Diego, it would not be an American fish. Ninety-nine percent are caught outside of American federal waters, also known as the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which extends 200 nautical miles offshore. Regardless of where the tuna is canned or which company does the canning, it is by no means an American food source.
Starkists’ preferential treatment, therefore, is unwarranted. Nor does it actually seem to benefit Starkist, whose 2014 annual sales of $684.1 million were far lower than both Chicken of the Sea and Bumble Bee, both of which made over one billion dollars that year. Furthermore, these numbers reflect annual sales, not profits, and therefore do not reflect that Starkist must pay its workers more, too.
Admittedly, there are many logical reasons why the US government should purchase canned tuna for foods programs – it is a nonperishable, easily transportable, and a lean source of protein that can be served in a variety of ways – but its status as an American product is an unfair and untrue advantage. In terms of the physical fish, miles traveled, and political capital expended, tuna is far from its perceived status as an all-American fish. The disconnect between the symbolism of the “Buy American” policy and the origins of the purchased product only widens this gulf.