By Sebastien Malo
NEW YORK, March 16 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Swiss food giant Nestlé SA and U.S. candy and pet food company Mars pledged on Thursday to take steps to ensure their pet food supply chains are free from human rights abuses and illegally caught seafood - in a move welcomed by campaigners.
Nestle and Mars, the makers of Pedigree and Purina pet food, said they would reduce or eliminate seafood that has been moved by fishing companies from one vessel to another in a practice that enables ships to stay at sea longer.
Campaign group Greenpeace says the process - known as transshipment - provides an opportunity for vessels to unload illegally caught seafood into supply chains, and allows ships to conceal abuses against crew members away from port.
Nestlé said it would ban its suppliers from resorting to transshipment at sea, while Mars said it would suspend the use of transshipped products if its seafood suppliers did not tackle problems with the practice.
"Over the past several years, Nestlé and Greenpeace have worked together to strengthen Nestlé's policies governing the procurement and responsible sourcing of seafood," said Jack Scott, head of sustainability for Nestlé Purina PetCare Inc., in a statement confirming the ban on transshipments at sea.
Mars said it recognised the risks of transshipment, and was committed to working with its suppliers to remedy the problems.
"But if we cannot resolve these issues to our satisfaction quickly, we will seek to end the use of transshipped products in our supply chains until these serious problems are fixed," said Isabelle Aelvoet, global sustainability director of Mars Petcare, in a statement.
International companies have come under increasing pressure from consumers and governments to be transparent about how and where their products are sourced amid greater awareness of abuses in supply chains.
Greenpeace said the move by the world's two largest pet food companies would put "significant" pressure on suppliers to end labor abuses.
The United States is the largest consumer of pet food globally, according to the Pet Food Institute (PFI), the country's chief pet food makers trade association.
"The commitment from Nestlé and Mars to end transshipment is an important step in tackling the well-documented issue of forced labor in Thailand's seafood industry," said Tim Isgitt, a spokesman for U.S.-based human rights group Humanity United.
Thailand, the fourth-largest seafood exporter according to the United Nations, has been the subject of numerous investigations by rights groups into human trafficking, slavery and violence in its multi-billion dollar seafood industry.
It has vowed to crack down on human trafficking and slavery and introduced reforms to its fisheries law.
Mars Petcare Inc. generates annual revenues of some $17 billion while Nestlé Purina PetCare brings in nearly $12 billion annually, according to trade publication PetfoodIndustry.com.
In 2015, in a move praised by anti-slavery groups, Nestlé admitted that slave labor was used to produce its seafood sourced from Thailand.
(Reporting by Sebastien Malo @sebastienmalo, Editing by Katie Nguyen.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)