For Chicken of the Sea, the new Dietary Guidelines for Americans give the right recommendation: People should eat more seafood, and it should replace of other protein foods for two meals per week. In response, the company launched the “Sea the Possibilities Challenge,” a behavior change campaign that encourages consumers to lead “happier, healthier, and more adventurous” lives, in part by increasing their seafood consumption. The problem is that the seafood industry - and Chicken of the Sea in particular - is guilty of over-fishing and human rights abuses.
“These latest guidelines confirm what Chicken of the Sea has known for years: Americans simply aren’t getting enough seafood,” Christie Fleming, Chicken of the Sea’s senior VP of marketing, explained in the campaign’s press release. “While we want the public to eat more fish for their own health and wellness, it’s certainly not the only goal of the Sea the Possibilities program. Ultimately, we’re challenging our consumers to boldly step out of their daily routines and then rewarding those who come up with the most original new ideas with cash awards and other incentives to dream even bigger in 2016.”
There are three types of challenges in the campaign: In the Kitchen, Better Everyday, and Go Big Challenges. Participants are encouraged to select a task – such as to try a new recipe, go on a “Farmer’s Market excursion,” train for a marathon, or work out 5 days a week – and post an original written story, photo or video that shows how they met that challenge. Chicken of the Sea will select weekly and monthly winners of cash gift cards, and one grand prize winner will receive $5,000.
It is true that eating more seafood in the place of processed and red meats, and performing many of the campaign’s other suggested actions, are elements of a healthier lifestyle. However, it likely does more harm than good if the seafood is sourced from a company which is known to engage in destructive fishing practices and modern slavery.
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Chicken of the Sea is owned by Thai Union Group, the largest producer of canned tuna in the world. Thai Union has been linked to environmental and social exploitation, particularly in Thailand, the world’s largest seafood exporter. Investigations by the Associated Press (AP), The Guardian, The New York Times, and Greenpeace have all concluded the same thing: Tuna and other seafood from Thailand is directly tied to human rights abuses, illegal fishing operations, and environmental destruction.
Thai Union owns 35 brands and subsidiaries, including several of the world’s top seafood brands: Chicken of the Sea is the top frozen seafood importer and the third biggest canned seafood brand in the U.S.; John West in the U.K., Ireland, and the Netherlands, Petit Navire in France, and Century Tuna in China are the countries’ respective number one seafood brands; Sealect is the top canned tuna brand in Thailand; and Mareblu is the second-biggest canned tuna brand in Italy. In 2014, 44 percent of Thai Union sales were in the U.S. and 29 percent were in Europe.
Following a trade ban warning from the European Union (EU) in April 2015, Thai Union began to adopt stricter standards. Between April and September, the company claimed to have stopped accepting fish and shrimp from over a thousand fishing vessels, and in September it announced a new Business Ethics and Labour Code of Conduct. A new Vessel Code of Conduct was expected by the end of 2015, but as of this publishing, it remains “currently under review.” Thai Union has committed to achieve 100 percent “from catch-to-consumption” traceability in all of its seafood products by 2020.
“Thai Union acknowledges the ever-increasing pressure from stakeholders on environment and labour issues in our supply chain. We have played a proactive role in working with government, community and research organisations, as well as customers and industry peers to jointly develop and implement important initiatives to improve the sustainability of our seafood supply chain,” Darian McBain, Thai Union’s director of sustainable development, said in October.
Also in October, Greenpeace launched a campaign targeting Thai Union, urging the company to follow through on its commitments - such as to source 100 percent sustainable tuna for its John West brand by 2016 - after finding it had only achieved 2 percent since it set the goal in 2011. The campaign is ongoing. Greenpeace ranked tuna brands from all over the world, and Thai Union’s brands ranked dead last or close to last across the globe (other poor performers included Princes and Lidl in the UK and StarKist, Kroger and Bumble Bee in the U.S.)
Then in December, another AP investigation revealed that shrimp was being peeled by slaves in Thailand as late as November 2015. Thai Union promptly announced it would cut external pre-processors – peeling sheds – from its supply chain by the end of the year. Thus far, the company has hired nearly 1,200 workers for its own facilities, with fully registered work permits and contracts that meet the minimum wage requirements in Thailand.
An EU delegation is currently in Thailand investigating whether the country has made enough progress to avoid a trade ban on seafood products.
“Thailand can guarantee that as of January 2016, there is no illegal labour in the Thai fishing industry, and the country does not deserve such a ban,” Thiraphong Chansiri, president and chief executive of Thai Union, told The Bangkok Post.
The public pressure on companies such as Thai Union, combined with political pressures on Thailand more broadly, are slowly prompting action. The UK’s Modern Slavery Act took effect in October, and transparency and anti-trafficking legislation are being considered in the House of Representatives and in the Senate. Even the Consumer Goods Forum recently called for more action on reducing forced labor.
In the meantime, if you must purchase fish as part of your “happier, healthier” lifestyle, consider some of the more reputable brands and retailers. After all, there is a sea of possibilities.