A Sea Change for Bumble Bee
Bumble Bee CEO Chris Lischewski on how partnering with the Padres has raised his company’s local profile, the push to label genetically modified foods, and why Americans are eating less seafood.
One of the biggest brand names in food is based here in San Diego.
Bumble Bee CEO Chris Lischewski talked with me about the company’s new headquarters in the old Showley Bros. Candy Factory building, the push to label genetically modified foods, what it means for a fish to be “Made in the U.S.A.” and why Americans are eating less seafood.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
For a nationally recognized brand, Bumble Bee has kept a relatively low profile in San Diego. I suspect your new facility and relationship with the Padres may change all that. How did it come about?
We never tried to keep a low profile. I think more people knew we were here when our offices were located in La Jolla and people could see it from the highway, but when the company went bankrupt in 1997, we moved to Kearney Mesa to get the costs down. But we’ve done a lot of things over time to try and raise our profile. We’ve given a lot of money to smaller organizations, and we’re one of the biggest supporters of Big Brothers and Big Sisters. We tend to be about kids and health and wellness, so it was a good fit, and a way to get our employees involved.
Our lease was coming up, and we decided that being a seafood company, it would be nice to see the ocean. We had our eye on a much more traditional high-rise office space that looked back over the old San Diego harbor, where the old tuna boats would come in during the 1950s and ’60s. But then we found this building and fell in love. At the time, we didn’t realize it was owned by the Padres. I had met Padres’ executive chairman, Ron Fowler, when he was named person of the year by Big Brothers Big Sisters, so I called him up and asked him if he’d be open to a company like Bumble Bee at Petco Park.
They had been challenged with the space. The biggest obstacle was zoning. The first floor was zoned for commercial or restaurant, and the top two floors office. We needed all the space, so we had to go through a rigorous process to change the zoning. The Padres carried the brunt of the load to get the zoning changed. At the time, the building was just a shell. It took nine months to from the time we reached the agreement to when we moved in. We don’t get an ocean view, but in the end, how can you beat this space?
Environmental group Greenpeace protested the grand opening of your new headquarters last month, and you did something unusual — your employees unfurled a banner of their own and protested back. Did you know Greenpeace was going to be there?
It surprised us. I was dropping something off in my car and the Greenpeace guys were walking down the street, so I got on my phone and said, “Hey, we have some friends.” The banner was a few years old and was a response to a cartoon video Greenpeace ran a few years ago. We happened to have it handy. The PR firm was telling me to ignore it, but it’s not my nature. We were just about to have Mayor (Kevin) Faulconer come in, and ex-Mayor (Jerry) Sanders. And I said, you know what? We’ve got to show the world we stand up for what we do.
You had a tragic accident at your Santa Fe Springs facility in 2012 where an employee lost his life. What’s been done for worker safety since then?
That factory has been running for 20 years. That process hasn’t changed in 20 years. In a lot of ways, we still struggle to explain how that event happened. Following the accident, we worked very closely with Cal OSHA. We brought in external experts to review the processes we had. We always had an employee safety committee at the factory. This was never brought up as a potential risk area, but we’ve gone back and done a lot of work on lighting, policies and procedures. The accident was a real shock. It still is. It’s something a lot of our folks still take very personally.
Bumble Bee contributed more than $420,000 to defeat California’s Prop. 37, which would have required labeling of food products that contain genetically modified ingredients. The company contributed $36,000 to defeat a similar measure in Washington state. Why?
Bumble Bee’s opposition to genetically modified ingredients is far less about our products as it is about the overall issue of GMO. Scientifically there’s never been a study that shows genetically modified foods have caused disease or illness. The fact is, we wouldn’t be feeding the world without GMOs, and we would have had a hell of a drought season on corn in the U.S. last year if we didn’t have drought-resistant crops. Genetic modification is being demonized.
I sit on the executive committee of the Grocery Manufacturers Association. Our opposition to GMO labeling was not as Bumble Bee Seafoods, it was really through the GMA. Why those dollar amounts? The GMA has a dues formula, so we get a bill and that’s our pro rata share. It was a lot of money.
Clearly states have their rights, but if every state has a regulation regarding food, it doesn’t make food costs go down. It should be the federal government that determines safety and policy, which is the position GMA is pushing and why we’ve been fighting state-led GMO legislation.
People don’t consider Bumble Bee the poster child for the GMO labeling fight. About 60 percent of our portfolio is already GMO-free. All of our premium products are GMO-free. We use a soy oil in our oil products (Reporter’s note: Nearly 90 percent of soybean crops planted in the U.S. are genetically modified.) We talk internally — do we want to go GMO-free as a company? If it becomes a big issue, we might very well do that.
Despite the health benefits, Americans are eating less seafood than they used to. Is it concerns over mercury consumption, or is something else driving that?
It’s true, Americans are not fish-friendly. People are looking for convenience. At the end of the day, canned tuna is an ingredient. It’s not as convenient as a deli meat you can buy and slap on some bread. Consumers have to open the lid, drain it, put in a bowl and mix it with mayonnaise. And more recently, we’re losing market to Greek yogurt, after all, it’s a protein.
But when you think about food in general, who’s got a better health and wellness story than we do? Is mercury out there? Sure. I hear it all the time. Grown men will tell me they’re cutting back on seafood because of mercury. I say, “Why? Are you pregnant?” (Reporter’s note: The 2004 joint EPA/FDA advisory on seafood consumption over mercury concerns was for women who were pregnant, might become pregnant, were nursing and it also applied to young children.) We think that the FDA will be coming out with their new advisory on seafood in the next six months. It’s done. EPA has signed off on it grudgingly. It’s through FDA, but there’s an approval process to go though. We want to be involved in the messaging. It has to be simple.
You got into a pretty public fight recently over the rules that govern the USDA school lunch program — and the USDA’s “Buy American” program. Did you win?
It’s a strange regulation. For it to be considered “Made in the USA” means more than 50 percent in the U.S. For seafood, it had to be 100 percent U.S. Today, there’s only one company that can meet that standard for U.S. tuna and that’s Korean-owned Starkist out of American Samoa. American Samoa is a U.S. territory, so they don’t abide by minimum wage requirements, and that was our argument. We were trying to say our fish is U.S., our canning is in the U.S., but it really came down to where the cleaning of the fish actually takes place. We have factories in Fiji, Mauritius, Thailand, Colombia. We were saying, let the requirement for seafood be 80 percent content, but the USDA doesn’t like change, so I think it’s an uphill battle.