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Tuna brands accused of making false "dolphin-safe" claims

Major U.S. canned tuna companies sued
  • Three major U.S. tuna brands mislead consumers by marketing their products as "dolphin-safe," claim proposed class actions filed in federal court in California.
  • The suits say Chicken of the Sea, StarKist and Bumble Bee Foods all use fishing methods that kill or harm a substantial number of dolphins each year.
  • The trio are are accused of violating the 1990 Dolphin Protection Consumer Information Act, which prohibits false labeling of tuna products that aren't dolphin-safe.

The three tuna brands that dominate U.S. food shelves mislead consumers by marketing their products as "dolphin-safe" when they use fishing methods that kill or harm the mammals, claim proposed class actions filed this week against Chicken of the Sea, StarKist and Bumble Bee Foods. The three brands don't always use safer, but more expensive, pole-and-line and other techniques favored by competitors including Trader Joe's and Whole Foods, according to suits filed on Monday in federal court in California.

The trio are violating the 1990 Dolphin Protection Consumer Information Act, which prohibits the false labeling of tuna products that aren't dolphin-safe. Bumble Bee uses an "alternative 'Dolphin Safe logo'" on its tuna even though its "tuna fishing practices kill or harm substantial numbers of dolphins each year," one suit contended.

The "Dolphin-Safe" label signifies no dolphins were killed or seriously injured as a result of catching the tuna contained in their products. Yet suppliers' tuna-fishing practices "kill or harm substantial numbers of dolphins each year," said the suit against StarKist. 

Rival tuna suppliers including Safe Catch, Trader Joe's, Whole Foods Market, Ocean Naturals and Wild Planet, use pole-and-line and trolling to catch tuna, while StarKist and Bumble Bee — except Bumble Bee's Wild Selections line — do not, the suits said.

Deceptive labels?

"Because defendant does not adequately trace or otherwise identify the tuna that is not 'Dolphin-Safe' and physically segregate and store it separately from any tuna that may be 'Dolphin-Safe,' defendant may not label any of its products as 'Dolphin-Safe,'" the StarKist complaint said. StarKist is also accused of violating federal racketeering law by knowingly doing business with foreign fishing companies whose practices don't meet national dolphin-safe standards.

While StarKist said it doesn't comment on pending legal matters, the company is "committed" to protecting dolphins and adopted a dolphin-safe policy in April 1990, a spokesperson emailed CBS MoneyWatch. 

Owned by South Korea's Dongwon Industries, StarKist doesn't buy tuna caught with gill nets or drift nets, and "condemns the use of these indiscriminate fishing methods that trap dolphins, whales and other marine life along with intended catch," the spokesperson added.

Thai Union-owned Chicken of the Sea issued a similar statement, saying it "is committed to supporting the conservation of all marine species and ensures all our products are certified 'Dolphin Safe.' 

Lion Capital-owned Bumble Bee did not immediately return requests for comment.

StarKist late last year agreed to plead guilty to felony price fixing as part of a broad collusion investigation of the canned tuna industry that also had Bumble Bee's CEO and other executives facing charges.