Cats and kittens underneath old fishing boat

Obama to Stop Fish Caught by Slaves; Closing Loophole For Goods Made by Slaves to be Imported and Used in Pet Food

Buying cheap fish flavored cat food may just get a little harder. For decades, American companies have legally been allowed to import fish caught by slaves in Southeast Asia — mainly due to a gaping loophole in federal regulations, but, that’s all about to change. A bill being sent to President Obama’s desk this week may finally close that loophole for good.

Legislation passed by Congress last week would bar all imports of products that use “convict, forced or indentured labor.” The bill, known as H.R. 644 – the Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act of 2015 (Act), which the president will ratify, ends a nearly century-old loophole in the US Tariff Act of 1930 that allows goods made by slaves to be imported if consumer demand cannot be met without them. Drafted during the Depression, lawmakers at the time placed economic need over foreign labor rights.


Senators Ron Wyden and Sherrod Brown who authored the amendment to the Act will finally close this slave-labor loophole.

“I think most Americans were horrified to learn that the fish in the pet food they give to their cats and dogs was being caught by children forced to work on ships against their will,” said Senator Brown, Democrat of Ohio, who, along with Senator Wyden, Democrat of Oregon, sponsored the amendment, told the New York Times.

Senator Wyden, who co-sponsored the amendment called the loophole “obscene.”

“It’s an outrage this loophole persisted for so long,” Wyden said. “No product made by people held against their will, or by children, should ever be imported to the United States.”

When the bill is signed, imports for many of the ingredients used in pet food on the U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of International Affairs’ List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor — from fish from Thailand, beef from Brazil, meat from Cambodia, wheat from Pakistan, to rice from India — may now face federal law enforcement.


The problem of slavery in the fishing industry came to light following a stunning series of articles about forced labor on Thai boats published in the New York Times, the Associated Press, and the Guardian, many of which catch the fish destined for pet food.

The articles spoke of workers being subjected to 20-35 hour work shifts, being deprived of food and water, enduring regular beatings, torture and execution-style killings. Some were kept at sea for years and had seen fellow slaves murdered in front of them. Those that lived, told of being locked in cages, abandoned on deserted islands, and shackled with heavy chains between work shifts.

The men often described their ordeal in terms of being treated like an animals – “like dogs” – yet, ironically, the fish those men toiled for was used to make feed for fish farms and pet food.


The passage of the bill is part of an ongoing, broader initiative to combat illegal fishing, including fish caught by slaves. As example, the White House outlined the framework for establishing a task force to combat illegal fishing, entitled Comprehensive Framework to Combat Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing and Seafood Fraud which addresses, among other things, how illegal fishing fuels illegal trafficking operations.

The new rules recommend imposing chain-of-custody reporting requirements for species of at-risk fish, including cod, snapper, and several types of tuna by preventing fishing boats from laying miles of illegal nets and indiscriminately killing vast populations of sea life, contributing to the destruction of the world’s marine ecosystem, in violation of international treaties.


According to a United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimate, over 80% of the world’s fisheries are fully exploited, depleted, or in a state of collapse. Worldwide, about 90% of the stocks of large predatory fish stocks are already gone. The dramatic increase of destructive fishing techniques worldwide destroys marine mammals and entire ecosystems. FAO reports that illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing worldwide appears to be increasing as fishermen seek to avoid stricter rules in many places in response to shrinking catches and declining fish stocks.


In another move to try to prevent illegal fishing, the United States joined with other countries preventing shipping vessels suspected of illegal fishing from having a place to dock. Last week, the president signed the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nation’s Port State Measures to Prevent, Deter and Eliminate Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing Agreement, an international accord which empowers governments to prohibit foreign vessels suspected of carrying illegally harvested fish from entering their ports and diluting the market with black market fish. The agreement will allow the United States to join the group of 25 countries whose aim is to reduce the number of “ports of convenience” available for illegal fishers to bring their catch to market.


Pet food companies will no longer be able to use the loophole for importing the vast quantities of slave-caught fish to make cat food, possibly putting an end to the question of how companies like Nestle, Mars, Iams, Big Heart, Proctor & Gamble, and Costco (recently the target of anti-slavery lawsuits) will operate within the U.S.

The class action lawsuits bring to the public’s consciousness a horrifying possibility: that the cost of cheap fish-flavored cat food comes at the expense of human rights, and the systemic decimation of the world’s ocean fisheries.

The lawsuits also force consumers into an uncomfortable corner – by making them face a moral and ethical dilemma every time they stand in the pet food aisle: ignore the human suffering of men forced to work against their will, or refuse to buy a product linked slave labor or support any company that profits from the abject misery of others and ignores the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.


None of the products we feed to our pets should be made by someone who is forced to produce them under conditions that violate international law, but the reality is – they are. So, before you grab that can of fish off the shelf or buy that bag of fish-flavored cat food, ask yourself, who caught this fish?

Before making a purchase, ask questions of the pet food companies, “How do you prevent child labor and forced labor from entering your supply chains? And how do you deal with labor abuses when they are found?”

While it’s doubtful you’ll get a reply to those questions you can verify, you can use the following tools to help you decide whether the ingredients in your pet food might have been harvested by men, women and children forced to labor in appalling conditions all over the world.

We cannot allow for the perpetrators of slave or child labor to have any place on retailer’s shelves or be allowed in American homes for the purposes of feeding their family or their cats and dogs. Government measures are great, but I think we can all agree that atrocities like these will not end until consumers refuse to buy products associated with slavery and illegal fishing  – or any product – from companies who profit from it.


Commodity Country
Beef Brazil
Corn Bolivia, Guatemala, Philippines
Dried Fish Cambodia
Fish Cambodia, Ghana, Indonesia, Kenya, Peru, Philippines, Thailand, Uganda, Yemen
Meat Cambodia
Nile Perch (fish) Tanzania
Oil (palm) Indonesia, Malaysia, Sierra Leone
Poultry Bangladesh
Rice Brazil, Burma, India, Dominican Republic, Kenya, Mali, Philippines, Uganda
Shellfish El Salvador
Shrimp Bangladesh, Cambodia, Thailand
Sugar Beets Turkey
Tilapia (fish) Ghana
Tomatoes Mexico
Toys China
Wheat Pakistan
*This list was compiled using several U.S. Department of Labor’s lists on forced labor (see below).







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Mollie Morrissette

Mollie Morrissette, the author of Poisoned Pets, is an animal food safety expert and consumer advisor. Help support her work by making a donation today.

Comments (5) Write a comment

  1. Nice summation and great effort to provide links.

    And without cheap fish, so many cat foods would never be on the shelves. Cats eat by smell more than taste… it would amaze the average consumer who shops in the grocery store how common and how much fish is in cat foods they buy. Often, the “beef” cat food has little beef and lots of “fish.” But those agribusiness conglomerates… you have no pity for them? What will they do? I would bet they would oppose this legislation on the basis of protecting consumers from rising costs they would need to pass on to them.


    • If they do, they should burn in hell. Just as with many other foods linked to forced labor, consumers are largely unaware that common commodities such as chocolate, coffee, and coconut oil have deep ties to child labor and human trafficking. It exists largely because consumers remain ignorant and complacent about what it means to be denied the most basic of human rights. As long consumers make choices based solely on its price, these kinds of abuses will continue.


  2. I have two observations to make. One is that while your article’s emphasis is understandably focused on the food for our pets, slave labor is also used to in bringing us humans the food that we eat. I have started looking at the labels of shellfish and fish packages to see if they are produced in one of the countries listed above and if so, I don’t buy it for me and my family.
    Two, while it is good to give Obama and the Dem senators credit for their part in this amendment to stop the slave trade, it had to be a bi-partisan effort which means the Republicans also supported it before it reached Obama’s desk for his signature.


  3. I think everyone with any type of moral compass would like to see this pass—do I think it will? Most likely not. So many countries and big businesses exploit children and women, even men for so many items imported here into the states—the fish , cocoa beans(chocolate), coffee, clothing etc., to name a few. Every corporation should be exposed and deeply fined, and given no time,no excuses to turn it around.. They can all certainly afford to pay a decent wage and supply decent working conditions and hire at an acceptable age. They need to have people with a conscience to run these businesses and quit looking the other way—the more people who know and are disgusted the better!!! If we know we have the power to boycott products because I believe as consumers we carry a lot of weight—and many consumers are much more ethical than our government agencies. Knowledge is power!


    • You are right Jane – we do have that kind of power. Government can only do so much, without funding these measures move along at a snail’s pace.

      Meanwhile, the world’s oceans are being destroyed by over-fishing. And human’s are deprived the world over of basic human rights in order to bring us cheap goods.

      As consumers we have a responsibility to know what we are buying, who made it, where it came from and who we are supporting.

      We can’t wait for governments to make it all better for us, we must demand it and expect it of the companies that sell us these goods. Because, as long as consumers keep buying it – corporations will keep making it and keep selling it.

      BTW – Obama is expected to sign the Act this week.



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