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Canadian consumers who purchase popular tomato pastes, sauces and ketchups may actually be buying products harvested and manufactured by Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities under oppressive working conditions in China, according to a CBC Marketplace investigation.
- Watch our full investigation tonight at 8 p.m. (8:30 NT) on CBC-TV and CBC Gem
Marketplace, in collaboration with the Investigative Reporting Project Italy — a non-profit media association — and The Guardian, found some of the world’s biggest grocers, including ones here in Canada, are stocked with tomato products that could be tied to forced labour in Xinjiang, a remote area of western China where Uyghurs are subjected to mass detention, surveillance and torture by the Chinese government, in what many countries have labelled a genocide.
“This is such a moral failure on the side of these companies,” said Adrian Zenz, senior fellow in China studies at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation.
Zenz said the “risk of forced labour is endemic and systemic” in China’s tomato industry and that “it’s high time [these companies] increased their awareness.”
Marketplace identified several major brands — Nestle, Del Monte and Unilever — that purchased tomatoes from Chinese companies in Xinjiang, processed them in intermediary countries like Pakistan, the Philippines and India, and shipped them internationally to be eventually sold at Canadian grocery stores like Walmart and T&T.
But a Canadian consumer may never know the true origins of that tomato product by looking at the label because regulations don’t require a company to disclose the entire geographical makeup of the raw material — only which country it was last processed in.
“So shocking,” said Glenford Jameson, a Toronto lawyer specializing in food regulation, after he was shown CBC’s findings.
Jameson said noting on the label where all the tomatoes come from would help “enable brands to build trust with their customers.”
Even the Italian suppliers of store-brand products for Canada’s most recognized grocers — Loblaws, Sobeys and Whole Foods — were found to be purchasing tomatoes from the Xinjiang region, although the grocers say no Chinese tomatoes are in their products.
One grocery chain, Whole Foods, has removed its store brand 365 Double Concentrated Tomato Paste off store shelves “out of an abundance of caution” after Marketplace provided information about their supplier.
“It’s troubling,” said Amélie Nguyen, head of the International Centre for Workers’ Solidarity, a Quebec non-governmental organization. “People should know where the products come from, they should be able to make choices about the food products they buy.”
She says supermarkets need to investigate their global supply chains and “put pressure on the producers from Xinjiang to treat the workers better.”
China one of biggest suppliers of tomato paste concentrate
China is one of the world’s biggest producers of tomato paste concentrate — exporting 855,490 tonnes globally last year. That paste is the foundation for finished tomato products seen on many store shelves.
The U.S. government banned tomato products from Xinjiang due to forced labour allegations earlier this year.
It’s a much different story for Canada, however, where tomato products from Xinjiang are still flowing into the country.
To see how readily available these products were, CBC spent months mapping out the dizzying web of global suppliers — going undercover with Chinese companies and analyzing international shipping records — to connect Xinjiang tomatoes to multinational brands, some of which were on store shelves at Walmart and T&T, a grocery chain owned by Loblaws.
Export records, provided by Washington-based non-profit C4ADS, showed Del Monte, Unilever, Nestle and UFC NutriAsia purchased thousands of tonnes of tomato paste in the last two years from Cofco Tunhe, a company implicated in China’s alleged forced labour scheme.
The tomato paste was shipped from Xinjiang to their factories in Southeast Asia, processed as spaghetti sauces and ketchups and then exported under the Product of Philippines, Product of India or Product of Pakistan country origin labels.
Nowhere on the labels did it mention the use of Xinjiang or Chinese tomatoes.
Canadian in-store brands have supplier links to Xinjiang
Marketplace found Canadian grocery stores such as Loblaws, Sobeys and Whole Foods work with Italian processors who conducted business with Xinjiang companies.
The Italian suppliers admitted to using Xinjiang tomatoes, but said these products don’t come into Canada, they are sent instead to markets like the U.K, Australia and Africa.
One of those companies, Antonio Petti Fu Pasquale Spa, makes Whole Foods 365 Double Concentrated Tomato Paste. That processor, according to Italian import records obtained via a freedom of information request, ordered tomato paste from Cofco Tunhe in the first six months of 2021.
Antonio Petti Fu Pasquale Spa — currently under investigation by Italian authorities for allegedly passing off foreign tomatoes as 100 per cent Italian — is a major processor that makes private label pastes and sauces for Canada, the U.S. and the U.K.
Whole Foods said that the tomatoes in its “365 Concentrated Tomato Paste are grown and processed in Italy” and that it has third-party audits and raw material traceability records that support their claim.
Mehmet Tohti, executive director of the Uyghur Rights Advocacy Project, “strongly condemns” Whole Foods’ business relationship with Petti.
“I urge them to stop immediately,” said Tohti. “This is insane and unacceptable…. Regardless of whether there are Xinjiang tomatoes in their products, [they] are part of this forced labour supply chain and they are benefiting from it.”
Following CBC’s inquiries, Whole Foods said it pulled its 365 Double Concentrated Tomato Paste off store shelves and will cut ties with Petti as a supplier.
Another Canadian brand that also sources tomato products from Antonio Petti Fu Pasquale Spa is B.C.-based Bosa Foods. It sells tomato paste under the Italissima brand.
Bosa Foods said it had been with Petti for many years and that the processor has assured the grocer that its code of ethics complied with internationally recognized human and labour rights standards.
Petti admitted it used Chinese tomatoes, but only for products destined for the African market.
Petti told CBC in an email that it “has a code of ethics to which it constantly strives to adapt commercial relations with foreign partners to respect human rights.”
Zenz said these companies have “found a way to still make a profit off this oppression.”
“It means that they are using a product that carries a high risk of forced labour and then they say, ‘We don’t sell this to the West because Western countries might have a problem with that, but it’s fine to sell it to Africans,'” said Zenz.
‘Lack of moral compass’
CBC also investigated some of Sobeys’ and Loblaws’ private brand tomato products — Compliments and President’s Choice, respectively — and found that both are made by Italian processor La Doria, which, according to Italian import records, had purchased tomato paste from Xinjiang as recently as May 2021.
La Doria, a leading supplier of private brands globally, confirmed that it used Xinjiang tomatoes for grocers in the U.K., Europe, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia but not for Sobeys or Loblaws.
Loblaws told CBC in an email that it shares “concern about labour conditions throughout the global supply chain and takes these matters very seriously.”
Loblaws and Sobeys did not indicate whether they would sever their relationship with La Doria, despite the apparent contravention of their companies’ stances on human rights violations by their suppliers.
“It really shows a lack of moral compass on the part of those companies,” said Joanne Smith Finley, an expert on Uyghur affairs at Newcastle University. “It makes a mockery of their [corporate social responsibility] policies … they deserve to be challenged.”
After CBC revealed its findings, La Doria said it would stop using tomato paste from Xinjiang.
‘They live under constant fear’
Adil, a Uyghur Muslim, said every year up to 12 members of his family were forced to farm tomatoes in Xinjiang.
That meant planting seeds, harvesting crops and even working in factories, or risk appearing unpatriotic toward the Chinese government.
“The authorities may confiscate their lands, they confiscate their houses and they also confiscate their livestock…. It’s very common that they will go to jail if they refuse to pay a fine,” Adil said through a Chinese translator.
The Chinese Communist Party considers Uyghurs “extremists,” and experts say it has taken harsh discriminatory measures toward them and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang. This involves the alleged coerced transfer of Uyghurs throughout the region to do seasonal work like picking tomatoes and cotton. A more recent component, which has yielded international condemnation, involved putting over a million people into internment camps, where human rights abuses have taken place.
Adil, whose name we’ve changed due to fear of retribution by the Chinese government toward his remaining family, recently escaped with his wife and kids and now resides in Washington, D.C.
“I felt very lucky. I thought it was a miracle that I could leave China,” he said.
He says his remaining family is “still living under fear” and believes “if they are not in [internment] camps … my family is picking tomatoes. The Chinese Communist party has so many ways to torture you. No one can escape from their evil hands.”
Undercover in Xinjiang and a pattern of forced labour
By analyzing government documents, state media reports and interviewing former Xinjiang residents, CBC pieced together a pattern of forced labour in the Chinese tomato trade going back years.
This involved the transfer of thousands of Uyghurs throughout the region to plant seeds, pick tomatoes or work in factories for many companies — including some of the biggest in China such as Cofco Tunhe Tomato and Xinjiang Guannong Tomato Products Co., under the pretense of “poverty alleviation.”
Cofco, according to export records, sold tomato paste to international companies like Heinz and Del Monte; Guannong to Russian companies like Grandstar. Both Chinese companies also send to Italian processors.
They also have ties to the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC), a paramilitary organization linked to Xinjiang’s agricultural sector. The XPCC, according to a report by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, has been connected to the large-scale surveillance, detention and indoctrination program targeting Uyghurs and other groups.
But one would never suspect anything nefarious was going on based on the undercover conversations Marketplace producers, posing as tomato traders of a fabricated company, had with Cofco and Guannong representatives during virtual tours.
WATCH | CBC’s Asha Tomlinson and Eric Szeto go undercover on virtual tours with tomato companies in Xinjiang China:
When the undercover journalists asked Cofco and Guannong about whether they used Uyghur labour, the companies were either evasive or downplayed how much they relied on it.
But documents CBC analyzed not only showed Cofco Tunhe involved in labour transfers, it stated in a 2020 press release that it collaborated with local governments to employ Uyghurs as a way to promote “national unity.”
A Cofco representative denied using any forced Uyghur labour and did not respond to further requests for comment after CBC revealed they were journalists.
Chinese state media reports also showed that Guannong had been involved in the transfer of hundreds of Uyghur workers to its factories as recently as 2020. But a representative from Guannong said that the company also did not use Uyghur forced labour, and did not respond to further questions after CBC revealed themselves as journalists.
Dru Gladney, a professor and expert on Uyghur studies at Pomona College in California, believes forced labour in China’s tomato trade is “very, very pervasive.”
“It’s not surprising that Uyghur labour is often forcibly utilized, because often these are low paying or menial jobs,” said Gladney.
Canadian government yet to ban tomatoes
The Canadian government has sanctioned four Chinese officials and another division over what is described as “gross and systemic human rights violations” in Xinjiang, but it has yet to issue an import ban on tomato products from the region.
Employment and Social Development Canada said in a statement that it was “progressing on a number of cases” and was working “to identify trade patterns and specific shipments potentially affected by forced labour for consideration and possible enforcement.”
Even though the Canadian government has the ability to seize imports if they are found to be produced wholly or in part by forced labour, it has yet to enforce those rules.