Tunagate: an Abuse of Political Power

You may not see many cans of SunKist tuna on the shelves at grocery stores in the Maritimes today, and there is a reason for that. The scandal often referred to as “Tunagate” from 1985 was rooted in Saint Andrews, New Brunswick at the only tuna cannery in Canada. The premise of Tunagate is that inspectors deemed many batches of tuna unsafe for human consumption due to decomposition from improper storage or handling of the fish and rancid smells. The Minister of Fisheries and Oceans at the time, John Fraser, overruled the inspectors and gave SunKist the go-ahead to distribute the unsafe batches of tuna across the maritime provinces. The tuna was turned down for Ethiopian famine relief efforts and was also returned by the Canadian Armed Forces after cooks complained of the rancidity (Cawley, 1985).

In an interview aired on a CBC News the fifth estate special about Tunagate, John Fraser gave a list of reasons as to why he allowed the tuna that did not pass inspection to hit supermarket shelves. His intentions seemed justifiable when he said that he wanted to give the company the “benefit of the doubt” (Cawley, 1985) because destroying the majority of the products would put the plant out of business and cause 400 job losses in the small New Brunswick town (Kingsmill, 1985). In essence it seems as though Fraser was just helping the employees of the tuna cannery, however it could be argued that he overruled the decision purely for the sake of profit and having no concerns for public health.

He also stated that the inspectors did not pass the tuna due to “aesthetic reasons” (Cawley, 1985) and that there were no actual health concerns. Fraser did hire two independent laboratories to test the tuna after the ministries inspectors deemed the fish unsellable but it was later revealed that these firms were not finished with the tests before Fraser overruled the judgement from ministry inspectors (Harris, 1985).

In an article written for the Toronto Star by David Kingsmill in 1985 titled “Where’s the Sense in Tunagate?” the author talks about the ministry’s inspection process. The ministry hires trained professionals called “sniffers” to test the cans of tuna for quality visuals, smell, and taste. Each sniffer begins by opening a can of tuna, making sure that it looks like great quality fish and then smelling an tasting it respectively to test if it is up to the high standards set by the government of Canada. An argument made by Minister John Fraser as to why he overruled the inspectors’ decision was that the testing process was “too subjective.” The author of the Toronto Star article brought up a counter argument to this: isn’t it the inspectors job to be subjective? Kingsmill states that the common, subjective senses (hearing, sight, taste, smell, and touch) are used to determine whether the fish meet the standards of product sale in Canada and if the batches of canned tuna are not up to par, they should not be sold.

It could also be said that SunKist tuna was falsely advertising the quality of their tuna before the scandal of Tunagate broke and the cans were recalled. If the company was advertising quality tuna, although the tuna was rejected by quality inspectors, they weren’t exactly telling the truth, were they? CBC states, in their digital archives, that the problem with the tuna was quality and not safety which is supported by the fact that there were no casualties from the sale of rancid tuna. It was simply that the fish did not look, smell, or taste as good as it should have, per Canadian standards. Scientific tests will tell you if a product is safe to eat but Kingsmill’s article raises the issue of quality and having to buy the product, open it, and hope that it isn’t a “disgusting mess” (Kingsmill, 1985) inside. That is something that quality tests help prevent in order for individuals to purchase what they are expecting and not play a guessing game when buying food sealed in a can.

After the Tunagate scandal broke, it did not affect the career of minister John Fraser, who later became Speaker of the House in 1986 and held that position until the beginning of 1994 (Braid, 1986). The company of SunKist did not fare as well as Fraser did. During April and May of 1985, SunKist’s market shares went from a 39 per cent share to a low of 1.3 per cent which gave Clover Leaf brand tuna, based out of British Columbia, a chance to take a large chunk of the market shares (The Canadian Press, 1986). Finally, in 1991, SunKist tuna brand was pulled out of Canada for good (The Canadian Press, 1986) because of their tainted reputation and lost trust from consumers and the 400 employees of the plant were left jobless. This incident can be compared, albeit on a smaller scale, to the Enron et. al. cases described by David Friedrichs. Although Minister Fraser did not have financial gain from lying about the rancid tuna, the company definitely did. After the scandal, inspection rules were eventually changed so that ministers cannot override the decisions made by food inspectors (Toronto Star, 1986a) to stop such abuse of political and corporate power (Severnuk, 1985) demonstrated by minister John Fraser, and the scandal of Tunagate mostly fizzled out of the media’s attention.

References

Cawley, J. (September 24, 1985). Canada Hit By Scandal Over Tuna. Chicago Tribune.

Friedrichs, D. (2004). Enron et al. Paradigmatic White-Collar Crime Cases for the New Century. Critical Criminology, 12(2), pp. 113-132.

Gray Garry C. The Responsibilization Strategy of Health and Safety. The British Journal of Criminology, 49(3), pp. 326-342.

Harris, M. (September 21, 1985). Tuna released before testing was complete, document says. The Globe and Mail. p. P.1.

Kingsmill, D. (September 25, 1985). Where’s the sense in Tunagate?. Toronto Star. p. C6.

Malling, Eric (Reporter). (September 17, 1985). The fifth estate: The tainted Star-Kist tuna scandal [Television Broadcast]. CBC News.

Miller, D & C Harkins. (2010). Corporate Strategy, Corporate Capture: Food and Alcohol Industry Lobbying and Public Health. Critical Social Policy, 30(4), pp. 30-54.

Severnuk, M. (October 17, 1985). Tunagate – an abuse of corporate power?. Toronto Star. p. A18.

Toronto Star. Federal ministers to be stopped from overruling food inspectors. (March 7, 1986a). Toronto Star. p. A.10.

Toronto Star. Study reveals ‘tunagate’s’ toll on Star-Kist. (September 21, 1986b). Toronto Star. p. F4.

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