Some of America's cat owners have their claws out over the allegedly unsavory origins of a popular cat-food brand.
Pet food purchasers have filed a class-action lawsuit against Fancy Feast owner Nestle, alleging that the brand relied on slave labor and human trafficking to provide seafood for the line of cat food. According to law firm Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro LLP, Nestle works with a Thai company called Thai Union Frozen Products PCL that allegedly is part of a slave labor and human trafficking problem in the Asian seafood industry.
In a statement emailed to CBS MoneyWatch, Nestle said that its mandatory guidelines for suppliers requires all of them to "respect human rights and to comply with all applicable labor laws." The company added that it's been working with a supply chain consultancy to understand the Thai seafood industry, which provides some ingredients for Nestle products.
"Building on this, our NGO partner Verité, has collected information from fishing vessels, ports, mills and farms in Thailand to identify where and why forced labour and human rights abuses may be taking place. We will publish Verité's key findings alongside a time-bound action plan to address the issues identified in the fourth quarter of 2015," the statement noted.
The lawsuit comes after similar allegations hit retailers including Walmart (WMT) and Costco (COST). In that case, a six-month investigation into the shrimping industry off the coast of Thailand by The Guardian found that slave labor was providing a basic yet necessary part of the shrimp industry. Slaves were reportedly chained, beaten, and sometimes killed while being forced to haul "trash fish" harvests. That fish was then ground into meal, which was fed to farmed shrimp that ended up in the coolers at Walmart and other big retailers.
In the case of Fancy Feast, Thai Union is allegedly relying on slaves or forced labor to catch the fish used in cat food. Last year alone, according to the complaint, Thai Union shipped more than 28 million pounds of seafood-based pet food for brands including Fancy Feast.
The men and boys who are forced into labor are allegedly trafficked from Myanmar and Cambodia, who believe they are finding employment, but then instead are sold as slaves to fishing captains in Thailand, the complaint alleges.
"Once sold, these men and boys (hereafter "Sea Slaves") enter a modern form of indentured servitude where they are required to work to pay off the price the captains paid to purchase them. The Sea Slaves cannot leave the boats until their debt is paid. After leaving port, these boats become floating prisons isolated by thousands of miles of open water," the lawsuit notes.
The slaves are sometimes forced to work as long as 20 hours a day with no or little pay, while refusing to work can lead to beatings or even death, according to the the complaint.
The lawsuit is filed on behalf of consumers who say they wouldn't have purchased Fancy Feast if they had known the alleged links to slave labor.
"By hiding this from public view, Nestlé has effectively tricked millions of consumers into supporting and encouraging slave labor on floating prisons," Steve Berman, managing partner of Hagens Berman, said in a statement. "It's a fact that the thousands of purchasers of its top-selling pet food products would not have bought this brand had they known the truth -- that hundreds of individuals are enslaved, beaten or even murdered in the production of its pet food."