Demonstrators march in support of Italian tomato farm workers being exploited in Foggia, Italy, August 2018. Photo: Getty Images.

A shocking report about slave conditions for workers picking tomatoes in Italy led Newsroom’s business editor Nikki Mandow to look into what we know about the provenance of dirt-cheap tinned Italian tomatoes in our supermarkets. And the answer is: not that much.

Spaghetti bolognaise is on the menu, so it’s a trip to the nearest supermarket for a tin of tomatoes. And there’s plenty of choice. 

Countdown has 32 different tinned tomato products on its (online) shelf. Only 11 are locally-sourced – good ol’ Watties’ Hawkes Bay tomatoes, plain and flavoured. Maybe roast garlic and onion for spag bol? 

Every other canned tomato – 21 different sorts – is Italian. 

Prices range from 70 cents to $2.55.

Countdown’s own brand Italian tomatoes cost as little as 70 cents a can. Local ones are $2.30. Image from website.

Another click and New World has a similar range. I can get Watties’ tinned tomatoes for $2.29, but why pay that much? New World’s Value own brand (“Viva Italia whole peeled tomatoes in juice”) are just 75 cents a tin.

New World’s “Viva Italia” Value brand are 75 cents a tin. Image from website.

I should be jumping for joy at the chance of a cheap feed. But I’m not.

I’m worried. 

A shocking investigative report from the UK’s Guardian newspaper about forced labour on Italian tomato farms has me wondering: Can you really bring a tin of tomatoes halfway around the world and sell it at a third of the price of a locally-sourced brand, and be sure no unsavoury human resources practices happened along the line? Maybe you can. But maybe you can’t. 

I just don’t know.

The Guardian article was headed “Are your tinned tomatoes picked by slave labour?” And the answer for its UK and international readers was: if you buy a cheap Italian brand, potentially yes. 

Modern slavery doesn’t need chains. It needs vulnerability, discrimination and a lack of the rule of law.

Reporters Tobias Jones and Ayo Awokoya, working with support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and Freelance Investigative Reporters and Editors, travelled to Italy to look at conditions on tomato farms. They found thousands of migrant workers, mostly from Africa and often without papers, working long hours in gruelling conditions, and living in “isolated rural ruins or shanty towns”.

The Great Ghetto of Torrata Antonacci, Italy, August 2018. Photo: Getty Images.

Some die in accidents or from preventable illness. Many don’t get paid what they are owed. They are exploited, often by mafia-controlled operations, and threatened with the police if they complain.

Modern slavery doesn’t need chains, says Jakub Sobik, of the British non-profit Anti-Slavery International. It needs vulnerability, discrimination and a lack of the rule of law. 

In Italian agriculture, The Guardian reporters found, all of these conditions are present.

Almost as shocking: the verification systems meant to ensure farmers obey the law and don’t exploit their workers are often as unethical as the labour practices themselves. 

Workplace inspectors are “very few and very corrupt”, The Guardian found, and the certification bodies that are meant to give supermarkets and other buyers an ethical audit of where their produce is coming from, are often a tick-box, hands-off report paid for by the tomato growers themselves.

It’s basically a racket, as Aboubakar Soumahoro, of the USB grassroots union told the reporters. 

“When the person being inspected is the same person paying the inspector’s fee, 99.9 percent of the time the inspector will say: ‘No, you’re not exploiting anyone’.” 

Italy is the second largest tomato processor in the world. Photo: Getty Images.

The Italian job

Italy is the third-largest grower of tomatoes in the world, after China and the US, and the world’s second-largest processor. Tomatoes add an estimated annual $5.5 billion to the country’s economy. 

But as Italians eat fewer tomatoes, more are sent overseas. Italy’s export volumes increased 11 percent in 2018, according to the country’s National Institute of Statistics. 

If the shelves of our supermarkets are anything to go by, quite a few of those tomatoes are ending up in tins in New Zealand. Kiwis purchased just over 25 million cans of tomatoes from New Zealand’s major supermarkets in the last year, according to Nielsen’s Scantrack data. 

That’s more than five for every man, woman and bambino in the country.

Given our penchant for choosing a bargain price and the almost 2:1 split of Italian:Kiwi tomatoes at, you’d have to guess we are buying 15-20 million cans of Italian tomatoes, or 6000-8000 tonnes of the stuff. And that’s not counting what we buy from dairies or discount stores. 

Of course, not all Italian tomatoes are produced using slave labour. Many farms were always fine, or have cleaned up their act in recent months or years.

But that’s where it gets murky. How can New Zealand consumers tell whether their tinned tomatoes are ethically-sourced?

Rebekah Armstrong was until recently advisory and research manager at the NZ Human Rights Commission and chair of the Human Trafficking Research Coalition. Now she’s setting up a company to help New Zealand businesses check for forced labour, child labour, or worker exploitation in their supply chains.

Australia’s Modern Slavery Act

The catalyst for Armstrong’s new venture is Australia’s Modern Slavery Act, which came into force in January this year. The act forces large companies working in Australia to report on any risks of modern-day slavery in their supply chain, and tell regulators (and customers) what actions have been taken to address that risk. 

 Some New Zealand companies selling in Australia will be caught by the new legislation, though the first disclosure reports aren’t due until December 31 next year.

Britain introduced its Modern Slavery Act in 2015; Australia followed this year. Photo: Getty Images.

Armstrong says exploitation is a huge problem in food production internationally and New Zealanders are certainly buying unethically-sourced food. The US Dept of Labour puts together an annual list of goods produced by child or forced labour, and she’s seen several products from that list on supermarket shelves here.

They include coconut water from the Philippines, melons from South America, beans from Turkey, rice from India, Vietnam or the Philippines, and fish from Southeast Asia.

Just last week, the BBC released an investigation into child labour on hazelnut farms in Turkey. The biggest hazelnut buyer is Ferrero, the company that makes Nutella and those yummy crunchy chocolates.

Asia-Pacific countries are the normal culprit when it comes to modern slavery, Armstrong says. So it’s a shock when the product is something as common as tomatoes, and they are grown in a western country most people would expect was abiding by strict EU labour laws.

When you see very cheap products, you have to ask how are suppliers getting that cost down so much?

Armstrong says supermarkets around the world can be cut-throat when it comes to getting ever-cheaper prices from their suppliers. But when they buy largely on price, that raises questions about whether companies are cutting corners – or blatantly flouting the law – when it comes to labour practices or environmental management.

“When you see very cheap products, you have to ask how are suppliers getting that cost down so much? I have particular questions around supermarkets’ own brands. Tinned tomatoes are often sold for 99 cents or less. Is it the workers’ pay and conditions making that possible?”

Verifying responsible sourcing isn’t easy

It’s a question New Zealand’s two main supermarket companies – Woolworths (which owns Countdown stores) and Foodstuffs (which owns New World and Pak’nSave) appear unable to answer. Neither was prepared to make a human being available to be interviewed for this story, though both issued written statements. 

Countdown refers Newsroom to its “responsible sourcing policy”, introduced in July last year. In an email sent by the media team, but which Newsroom “is welcome to attribute to Kiri Hannifin, Countdown’s general manager corporate affairs, safety and sustainability”, the company tells us it is “working hard to ensure traceability and transparency in our own New Zealand supply chain, as well as high-risk global commodity foods like tomatoes”.

Trouble is, Italian tomatoes aren’t high-risk, at least according to Woolworths’ 2019 Group Sustainability Report.  

Illegal migrants, who often have no papers and owe money to traffickers, protest exploitation on Italy’s tomato farms. Photo: Getty Images.

This lists Europe as having only “minimum” or “moderate” risk of bad supplier practices, meaning Countdown relies solely on supplier self-assessment and third-party auditors to check there’s no bad stuff going on. 

The company uses unannounced site visits only for certain high-risk suppliers in China, Bangladesh and Thailand, and then only once a year, its own report says.

A relevant and helpful roadshow

Countdown’s “responsible sourcing standards” include 19 requirements relating to labour rights, fair and safe working conditions, the environment, and business integrity, the report says. However it isn’t auditing against key objectives like no child labour, an effective employee grievance process, and suppliers paying living wages. 

“In 2019, our responsible sourcing efforts were primarily dedicated to communicating and implementing our program with key suppliers … This included roadshows to launch our program to more than 1500 suppliers across 10 locations in Asia, Australia and New Zealand. Based on the feedback from suppliers in Asia, 86 percent agreed the roadshow was relevant and helpful to their job and 90 percent said they would attend again next year.” 

All good, although a “relevant and helpful” roadshow that hasn’t actually been given to European suppliers appears like a rather ineffective measure against Italian tomato slavery. 

Countdown accepts that Australia’s new slavery legislation has pushed the company to go further.

“In 2020, we will update our supplier segmentation analysis with additional emphasis on forced labour and commodities,” the company’s responsible sourcing policy says. “This will help us prioritise efforts ahead of our first disclosure under the Australian Modern Slavery Act.”

Armstrong says modern slavery legislation seems to be the only way to get most companies to look at potential supply chain problems.

“It’s interesting to note the UK and Australia have had to introduce a Modern Slavery Act to force their companies to comply, because companies do not want to do it voluntarily.” 

She says some New Zealand companies that might be impacted by Australia’s MSA are treating it as a “last-minute compliance exercise” that they don’t need to think about until nearer the December 31, 2020 deadline.

“That’s despite the Australian government saying you have to start it now because it does take a lot of time. First you have to do the mapping of your supply chain, then identify risks in the country and/or industry you are getting products from. It can be very difficult.”

Foodstuffs’ two-line goal

New Zealand-owned chain Foodstuffs also sends Newsroom a statement in response to questions. This one can “if needed” be attributed to head of external relations Antoinette Laird.

“A core part of our corporate social responsibility is to ensure that we operate in a sustainable way in every aspect of our business,” the statement says. “This extends to securing products from ethical sources, whether in New Zealand or overseas.

“As part of our tender process for our private label products we outline the social responsibility and human resource practices we expect from our suppliers. Key principles are outlined including labour practices, adherence to minimum pay legislation, discrimination, safety and working hours.

“If suppliers are based in countries where human rights or labour practices may be in doubt, then we request certification from independent organisations such as Bureau Veritas … Independent audits are also provided by a number of our suppliers as part of their standard business practice. Our private label team regularly visits suppliers.”

Whether these suppliers include Italian tomato farmers isn’t clear, and further enquiries don’t elicit any more information. Meanwhile, Foodstuff’s 2018 corporate responsibility snapshot dedicates just two lines of a 28-page document to ethics in its supply chain. By 2023, the document says, Foodstuffs aims to make publicly-available both its “sourcing policies and approach”, and its “product provenance and working practices”.

That’s all. “Publicly available.”

This information might help a consumer with good contacts in the Italian tomato growing and fair trade certification industries check whether New World’s 75 cent “Viva Italia” tinned tomatoes are free from modern slavery practices – in four years’ time.

But in the meantime, I’d be happier knowing Foodstuff’s private label team had checked out that particular supply chain themselves.

When everyone’s competing on price

So how does a consumer choose? Noel Josephson, chief executive of Ceres Organics, is one of only two people who agreed to talk to Newsroom for this story. 

Ceres Organics CEO Noel Josephson. Photo: Supplied.

The company buys tinned tomatoes from Italy, but Josephson says its suppliers’ certified organic status involves stringent fair trade and labour criteria, including a certificate that all tomatoes are harvested by machine. 

But guaranteeing your product is slavery-free doesn’t come cheap. Ceres has two products in the Countdown online store, but they are relatively expensive compared to some of their Italian competitors – $1.95 for whole tomatoes, $2.55 with basil. That’s the most expensive tin in the store.

New World doesn’t list a single Ceres tin of tomatoes.

It’s frustrating, Josephson says. 

“It’s a constant battle to get on supermarket shelves when overwhelmingly for their store-buyers it’s all about price. We can’t compete.”

Even consumers who are prepared to pay a higher price for products with organic certification are doing it more because they think that’s better for their own health (and increasingly that of the planet), rather than out of any particular concern for downtrodden workers. 

“Human rights issues aren’t highlighted much,” Josephson says. “People don’t see what they don’t see. It’s hard to picture an immigrant slaving in Italy, when they aren’t in front of you.”

Tough choices

That’s something that surprised Emma Emery-Sinclair when she moved to New Zealand from the UK, where she says there’s a higher value placed on fair trade certification.

She founded Emma’s Food Bag in 2013 and says it has sometimes been a struggle to source organic and ethically-produced ingredients. 

“The Italian tinned tomatoes we buy are organic, but not fair trade. To be honest I think we just assumed that, coming from a western country, their workers are treated fairly. 

“We’ve tried to secure a stable locally-produced alternative, but this has been difficult with the wholesalers we have available to us, so we’ve chosen organic as a ‘second best’. Local is always our preferred policy in food procurement.

“I will be investigating this for sure; I wouldn’t be surprised if we get customer queries about this as our customers are very ethically aware.” 

Emery-Sinclair says it’s sometimes difficult to be sure what you are buying.

India is the world’s largest cashew nut producer, but it’s tough work. Photo: Getty Images.

“We’ve only just been alerted to the appalling conditions some cashew nut production workers, mainly women, are under, so we’re looking to establish a secure wholesale supply of fair trade product.”

Emery-Sinclair says it was a friend who sent her a Facebook link to a France 24 TV news broadcast showing Indian workers with fingers burnt by the caustic acid contained within the cashew shell. Often the women are paid by volume, so even when they work fast they still earn less than 6 Euros ($10) a day.

She says at the moment, her business looks at each supplier decision individually – she’s heard of a fair trade cashew supplier in Bali and is wondering whether to switch to be sure any cashews her food boxes contain are ethically-produced.

Doing a full audit of the company’s supply chain would be a huge thing for a small business.

“It becomes a big strategic decision to look at every product. Would our customers rather have fair trade cashews and pay more?”

Rebekah Armstrong visiting saffron pickers in Iran in 2015. Photo: Supplied

Armstrong says New Zealand should look at modern slavery legislation to get companies to take human rights seriously.  

Air NZ, for example, has a supply chain auditing process to comply with the UK’s 2015 Modern Slavery Act. The national airline now has an annual modern slavery statement, including a goal of 100 percent supply chain transparency in terms of human rights by 2020.

But New Zealand has no such legislation on the cards, and Armstrong says many Kiwi companies and consumers are more worried about price than people.

“It’s a frustrating place to be working, because I believe we are so apathetic. This is about dignity and respect of people. In some cases, our own [New Zealand] workers are being paid $2 an hour, or not being paid at all.”

A report released in July this year by UK-based food industry tracking company Lumina Intelligence suggests consumers might say they want to buy ethical products, but they don’t actually engage with those products.

Products that made no ethical claims got double the number of online reviews than those that had certified status like organic, fair trade or rainforest alliance, the study found. 

If, in many cases, New Zealand companies have little idea where exactly the products they buy are coming from, and whether human rights or modern slavery might be present, it’s not necessarily their fault. The Guardian article found part of the problem, in Italy at least, is the incredible secrecy surrounding supply chains.

Even when its reporters tried to check whether slave conditions were present in food coming from Italy, they discovered it was pretty hard to find out. 

The reporters contacted 15 Italian certification bodies; only two replied, the article says. Meanwhile, the addresses of agricultural cooperatives supplying international brands were often nondescript suburban offices. “When you visit, they refuse to divulge which farms they work with.”

Same with oranges from the southern tip of the Italian mainland, the reporters said. 

“If you attempt to trace where Calabrian oranges, picked by enslaved labourers, end up, everyone goes silent. 

“The processing plant in Rosarno owned by Gaetano Rao, a businessman and politician, doesn’t reply. San Benedetto, an Italian orangeade producer, says it is too busy to comment. Only Fanta, which is owned by Coca-Cola, offers a complete list of all its suppliers and transporters. Since 2012, Fanta has stopped sourcing its oranges in Calabria.

“We’re taking lectures in morality from Coca-Cola,” says one activist.

Italy’s 120-year-old tomato producer has new supply chain rules after being associated with exploitation in 2017. Photo: Getty Images.

POSTSCRIPT: Newsroom contacted several other New Zealand companies about Italian tinned tomatoes, including food bag Hello Fresh, and importer Davis. Neither responded.

However, another importer, Euro-Dell, sent a document from its Italian supplier, Mutti, entitled “Providing fair working conditions in the Italian tomato industry: Our own commitment and a call for action.” 

Mutti, which was named in 2017 by the Italian prosecutor as benefiting from tomato worker exploitation, sets out its new supply chain rules, including machine harvesting, a price premium strategy, and farm visits. It also urges its competitors to do more.  

There is just one Mutti canned tomato product listed at, priced at $2.49. At New World there are two products, costing $2.20 and $1.99. 

My Food Bag got public relations company Pead PR onto the job of responding to Newsroom’s questions. Pead sent a statement from My Food Bag CEO Kevin Bowler which said: “Ingredients sourced off-shore are procured through trusted New Zealand agents and our agreements with them insist on the same high standard of business ethics. These agreements are binding, and our agents are lawfully obligated to meet the conditions they agree to. If there was ever any suggestion that the ethical terms in the programme were not being adhered to, we would take immediate action.”

My Food Bag later confirmed its primary supplier of tomatoes now uses only mechancially harvested tomatoes.

Watties’ imported Italian tomatoes are cheaper at Countdown than its Italian-style locally-grown ones. Image from website.

Lastly, Newsroom approached Heinz Wattie’s to request an interview about the difficulties the company might have competing with cheap imported tomatoes – for example, Italian tinned tomatoes which may or may not involve slave labour in their production. We were also interested in Watties’ own supply chain verification processes for tomatoes they import from Italy.

Of course we didn’t get to talk to anyone, but we were sent a statement by a public relations company, “attributable to managing director Mike Pretty”. This is it. Verbatim. Capitals Included.

“Wattie’s has grown and processed tomatoes in Hawke’s Bay since 1936. Tomatoes are used in Canned Tomatoes plus as an ingredients in many of our foods. Wattie’s has very long standing relationships with many growers, many multi-generational.

“The harvest and canning season starts in February ending in April (weather dependent) and all of our staff involved in processing canned tomatoes are paid above minimum wage.

“We are very proud of our geographical and cuisine inspired tomatoes. Wattie’s offers a delicious range canned tomato with added herbs and seasonings that give consumers really easy ways to make their favourite meals. So popular are these Wattie’s tomato products that they are New Zealand’s market leading canned tomato products.

“The balance of canned tomatoes we sell are imported from Italy where we have procurement controls in place to ensure they are produced by suppliers who operate legally and ethical growers.”

Nikki Mandow was Newsroom's business editor and the 2021 Voyager Media Awards Business Journalist of the Year @NikkiMandow.

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