The cruel and hidden world of economic servitude has collided with cat food consumers, who filed a class-action lawsuit last week in California against manufacturers Mars Inc., Iams and Proctor & Gamble. This suit follows another filed in August against Nestlé, the parent company of Purina. Both contain complaints “for violation of California Consumer Protection Laws,” alleging abuses of human rights and the use of slave labor in foreign supply chains by the companies.
A recent New York Times feature titled, “‘Sea Slaves’: The Human Misery That Feeds Pets and Livestock” brought the issue of maritime slavery to the forefront. Men and boys from Cambodia are lured to Thailand with the promise of jobs in lucrative areas like construction. Upon arrival, these economic migrants find themselves confined for days at a time in abhorrent conditions until they are abruptly herded onto a fishing boat. Lang Long, a Cambodian man featured in the article, reported being repeatedly resold; he was shackled by the neck after multiple escape attempts. A 2009 study found 29 percent of migrants reported witnessing a crew member kill a worker onboard. The U.S. Department of Labor also confirms Thai seafood “are likely the product of forced labor.”
Thai fishing boats typically bring in forage fish – small, school-forming species like herring, sardine and anchovy – used as a cheap filler in pet and livestock food. The common practice of long-haul fishing means captives are forced to live at sea for long periods of time: more profitable for the fisheries but extremely isolating for workers. “Lax maritime labor laws and an insatiable global demand for seafood” are to blame for the current crisis, according to the New York Times. The lawsuits claim Thailand’s largest seafood company, Thai Union Frozen Products, has shipped over 28 million pounds of “seafood-based cat and dog food” for major brands like Iams, Meow Mix and Fancy Feast in the past year alone.
Plaintiffs in both class-action lawsuits said ignorance of suppliers’ practices is no excuse. “When these food conglomerates fail to uphold their responsibility for ensuring the absence of slave labor in their supply chains, their misconduct has the profound consequence of supporting and encouraging slave labor,” says the suit. “And when these food conglomerates fail to disclose the use of slave labor in their supply chains to consumers, they are deceived into buying products they would not have otherwise and thereby unwittingly supporting slave labor themselves through their product purchases. Such food conglomerates should be required to make restitution to the consumers they have deceived and to ensure the absence of slave labor in their supply chains going forward.”
A spokesman for Nestlé Purina condemned the practice, saying, “Forced labor has no place in our supply chain.” An independent investigation of the company’s Thai suppliers is to be published later this year. Mars, Inc. reportedly received over 90,000 cartons of pet food from the same cannery where Mr. Long was held in slavery. The pet care conglomerate’s website lists 41 brands of dog and cat food, the most popular including Whiskas, Temptations, Iams, Cesar and Pedigree.
For pet parents, this means being a more conscious shopper; consumers’ purchasing power is our only weapon against big brands. The following brands of dog and cat food have been linked to slave labor use in their seafood supply chains:
- Mars, Inc. – Pedigree, Whiskas, Cesar, Nutro, Greenies, Iams, Evo, Temptations, Eukanaba, Innova and Sheba.
- Iams – Purrfect Delights, Delacacies; any seafood flavors
- Nestlé Purina – Beneful, Fancy Feast, Friskies
Although the recent focus has been on the “bait to plate” process for pet food companies, suppliers for human seafood products commit the same atrocities and abuses. Both Mars, Inc. and Nestlé sell foodstuffs containing seafood, including brands like Uncle Ben as well as dozens of international subsidiaries. Organizations like Seafood Watch – operated by the Monteray Bay Aquarium – provide sustainable seafood recommendations, taking into account the type of seafood, catching method, and location of the catch. Atlantic salmon caught in Canada using a recirculating aquatic system is listed as the top choice for “salmon,” while Chilean Coho salmon caught in a net pet are flagged as a red to “AVOID.”
Being a responsible consumer can be a pain, but some among us feel a duty to support only those companies who deserve it. When researching the best brand of cat food, consider not only nutritional content, but ingredient sources and quality. Most of all, consider the health and happiness of your pet.