Major seafood-selling brands such as Safeway, Walmart and Sysco are potentially benefiting from slave labor, a new AP investigation has unveiled.
Slave-caught fish can end up in the supply chains of major grocery stores, large retailers and the biggest food distributors, and find its way into the supply chains of popular brands of canned pet food, including Fancy Feast, Meow Mix and Iams. It can even end up as calamari at fine dining restaurants, as imitation crab in a California sushi roll or as packages of frozen snapper relabeled with store brands that land on our dinner tables, the AP reports.
Many of the slaves come from Myanmar — one of the world’s poorest countries. They are brought to Indonesia through Thailand and forced to fish, and their catch is shipped back to Thailand, where it enters global supply chains.
Over the course of a year, AP spoke to more than 40 current and former slaves in Benjina, Indonesia, and documented the journey of a single large shipment of slave-caught seafood from the Indonesian village, tracking it by satellite to a harbor in Thailand. After its arrival, AP journalists followed trucks that loaded and drove the seafood over four nights to dozens of factories, cold storage plants and the country's biggest fish market.
The tainted seafood mixes in with other fish at several sites in Thailand, including processing plants. Official records show that several of those Thai factories ship to the US, Europe and Asia.
However, by this time it’s nearly impossible to tell where a particular fish caught by a slave ends up — entire supply chains are muddied, and money is trickling down the line to companies that benefit from slave labor, the AP says.
The seafood industry has recognized and is working to address the problem by taking steps to prevent forced labor, such as working with human rights groups to hold subcontractors accountable.
But several independent seafood distributors that talked to the AP described the “costly and exhaustive steps” taken to ensure their supplies are clean. They said the discovery of slaves underscores how hard it is to monitor "what goes on halfway around the world."
"The supply chain is quite cloudy, especially when it comes from offshore," Logan Kock, vice president for responsible sourcing at Santa Monica Seafood, told the AP. "Is it possible a little of this stuff is leaking through? Yeah, it is possible. We are all aware of it."
Efforts are growing to eliminate slave labor from global supply chains, with landmark industry collaborations and policies emerging aimed at addressing the problem. Last week at the Sedex Global Responsible Sourcing Conference in London, keynote speaker Rani Hong — a human trafficking survivor who is now Special Advisor to the UN and founder of the Tronie Foundation, dedicated to eradicating modern-day slavery around the world — announced the launch of the Freedom Seal, designed as a visual marker businesses can use to clearly communicate to consumers that they have due diligence mechanisms in place and are actively taking steps to prevent forced labor and human trafficking throughout their operations. Companies can apply for the seal by demonstrating that they have taken certain steps toward educating their workforce and suppliers on the issue and have implemented a zero-tolerance policy on forced labor throughout their supply chains.
In the meantime, purchasing fish that has been certified as sustainably sourced is one thing brands can do to attempt to minimize the chances that slave-caught fish end up in their supply chains. In February, Safeway and Fair Trade USA announced a partnership to launch Fair Trade Certified™ seafood into the North American market. The program addresses both social and environmental responsibility in fishing communities across the globe. That same month, FCF Fishery Company (FCF) — one of the largest tuna suppliers in the Pacific — announced that its joint investment, Nambawan, and its associated fleet, have signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with PNAO/Pacifical as a commitment to maintaining Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) sustainability standards while trading tuna harvested from Pacific Island Nations waters.
To avoid paying for slave-caught fish, US consumers can visit community-supported fisheries, such as Dock to Dish, which strive to bring the health benefits of locally harvested fish and seafood back to local consumers while helping to strengthen the in-state commercial fishing industry.