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Major global markets and Chinese tomato products

20/03/2024 - François-Xavier Branthôme
According to information published in February 2024 by American business magazine Forbes, some US companies may have unwittingly continued to sell Xinjiang tomato products banned by US authorities over forced labor fears. At the same time, EU law makers agree on new rules to crack down on forced labor in food supply chain.

Tomatoes grown in the Chinese region have been banned in the U.S. since January 2021 due to concerns they may have been produced with Uyghur forced labor. A new law barring all goods from Xinjiang kicked in from June 2022. The ban is a reaction to mass detention centers in the region, where Human Rights Watch say up to half a million people from the region’s mostly Muslim minority group have been detained and forced to labor in farms and factories.
American shoppers at Amazon, Walmart, Etsy and grocery delivery apps Instacart and Uber Eats may have unwittingly bought canned tomatoes and pastes produced by Uyghur forced laborers in China’s far west region of Xinjiang, which are banned by the U.S. government, according to a Forbes review of product listings.
 Since the 2022 ban was imposed under the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, U.S. officials have seized more than USD 2.2 billion of goods at American ports they believe were produced by Uyghur forced labor. Despite this, Forbes found examples of canned tomatoes and pastes from Chinese companies with links to Xinjiang on sale with major online retailers and via online grocery delivery apps, using data from Israeli startup Ultra Information Solution’s digital vetting platform Publican. “Chinese importers are still able to easily bypass the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act enforcement,” Ultra’s cofounder Ram Ben Tzion told Forbes. “Forced labor products are still widely available in the U.S. market.”

Tomato brands Nina, Gino, and Zehrat Safa, which have been stocked by third-party sellers operating on Amazon, Walmart and Etsy’s marketplaces, are produced by the Chinese company Hebei Tomato Industry. The food processor, which is based about 200 miles southwest of China’s capital Beijing, states on its website that “raw materials come from Xinjiang''. Tomatoes harvested in Xinjiang also appear to be slipping into the supply chain of other American food companies and retailers.

Human rights groups have alleged that up to one million people from China’s Uyghur, Kazakh and Kyrgyz minority communities have been detained in “re-education camps” in a move condemned by the U.S. and several other countries as amounting to genocide. China has repeatedly denied human rights abuses but claimed that sprawling high security camps in Xinjiang provide vocational training and are part of its counter-terrorism program. “This example of tomato products linked to Uyghur forced labor still finding their way onto shelves in American stores is simply unacceptable and underscores the importance of our efforts to significantly strengthen the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act,” Representative Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-IL) said in a statement to Forbes.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection data shows that the majority of the goods seized under the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act have been electronics and cotton-based clothing and textiles. Agricultural imports like tomatoes represent only 1% of the USD 2.2 billion Xinjiang-produced goods seized by CBP since 2022. Even before the ban, the scale of Chinese tomato imports to the United States was small. The U.S. is a major tomato exporter, though Chinese tomato paste costs much less than California-grown products. “The only reason for this to take place would be cost,” said Bruce Rominger, chairman of the California Tomato Growers Association. “California has some of the most stringent environmental, food safety, labor laws and wages in the United States. With these standards do come costs.”

EU: "We must put an end to forced labor, from Chinese tomato pastes to Indian rice"
From Chinese tomato pastes to Indian rice and Thai shrimps, various food products entering Italy are likely to have been produced through forced labor. This underscores the importance of the European Union's decision to ban access to the EU market for goods derived from this modern form of slavery, which affects more than 26 million people worldwide, including minors.

This is the essence of a statement released by the Coldiretti commenting on the first agreement reached between the EU Parliament and Council on the regulation banning the introduction and availability of such products on the EU market. The agreement introduces significant changes to the original proposal, clarifying the responsibilities of the Commission and the competent national authorities in the investigation and decision-making process. The final decision (i.e. ban, recall or disposal of a product manufactured using forced labor) will be taken by the authority that conducts the investigation. If the decision is taken by a national authority, it will apply in all other Member States on the basis of the principle of mutual recognition.
 Unfair competition hurts Italian agriculture. According to the Coldiretti's analysis of U.S. Department of Labor data, "agri-food products grown or processed using forced adult and child labor include peppers from Mexico, rice from Mali, chestnuts from Peru, fish from Thailand, Indonesia and China, and sugar cane from Brazil. A large proportion of the food products that end up on Italian or European supermarket shelves are imports of non-EU products that create unfair competition with agricultural producers and endanger the health of consumers."
"We have repeatedly asked the European Union to block imports of food products from this type of exploitation," declared Coldiretti president Ettore Prandini, stressing that "behind all the food that reaches our tables, there should be a process of quality that includes the protection of minors, as well as labor rights, the environment and health. The principle of reciprocity must be respected in all trade agreements."

Some complementary data
To access the Press release published by the Council of the EU on March 5, 2024,
click here.

Sources: Forbes (with permission from Iain Martin, Forbes Staff),
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