Score Table highlights
The ethical profile of the tinned tomatoes market is not straightforward. Basic environmental reporting is carried out by only four of the fourteen companies on our table and only five received Ethical Consumer’s best or middle rating for supply chain management.
The latter is of significant concern given the ongoing issues about the exploitation of workers on Italian tomato farms.
On the flip side, half of the companies offer an organic option and six received positive marks for their company ethos (hand-picking suppliers, prioritising fair trade, being entirely organic etc.)
Supermarket own brands
The supermarket own brands are top sellers for tinned tomatoes.
For a full rating of the supermarkets, see our supermarkets shopping guide.
Our Best Buy recommendations then were the Co-op and Marks & Spencer.
Workers’ rights on tomato farms
When Ethical Consumer last covered tomatoes back in 2012 we highlighted that slave labour was in use in Florida and that workers’ rights were being abused on Italian tomato farms.
Since then, working conditions have improved in Florida after a successful farm worker led campaign to introduce “clean labor” audits. Ninety percent of corporate farms operating in Florida now submit to the audits and they have resulted in the introduction of shade tents, as well as mandated water and bathroom breaks. Wages have also increased after a “penny per pound” bonus was introduced that delivered the equivalent of an extra day’s pay per week to workers.
In Italy, on the other hand, the situation appears to have changed little.
Italy is one of the largest producers of tomato products in Europe. The industry is worth €1.6 billion, of which 60% is exported to other European countries, as well as the US and Japan. With a 16% share of Italy’s total tomato exports, the UK is the second-largest importer of Italian tomato products.
According to a report published by the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) in 2015, hundreds of thousands of migrant workers are still being exploited on Italy’s tomato farms, despite efforts by the Italian government to ban illegal recruitment systems.
According to the ETI report, the problems in this large and valuable industry stem from the illegal recruitment system of ‘Caporalato’. Many tomato farms are small and cannot accommodate large harvesting machines, so the tomatoes must be harvested manually. Rather than sourcing and managing workers directly, farmers find it easier to engage with ‘Caporali’ or gangmasters who supply workers to these small farms, paying wages and providing transport.
The workers’ wages are on average 40% below the legal minimum threshold and they are charged fees for transportation, food, accommodation, mobile phone credit, money transfers and even the number of crates filled during a working day. The Caporali also oversee the acquisition of residency permits (€5,000-7,000) and, of course, finding tomato-picking work, for which they also charge fees.
To stay in here you need a work contract. You can buy it for €800-€1000. In a team of workers only 3 or 4 have work contracts … There is always a caporale. It is impossible to have direct contact with employers. The Caporale takes your papers to draft the employment contract. But when you ask about it, they are elusive and say that they will give it to you after the work is done … Caporali keep half of our pay. We earn €3 per crate, but it should be €6...When fields are not cultivated extensively, your daily salary does not reach €30. Yesterday I worked with a friend, and we only earned €19 each. – ‘Abdou’, 26, from Senegal
The Italian Association for Legal Studies on Immigration (ASGI) suggests that as many as 500,000 people may be vulnerable to exploitation under the Caporali.
Italy officially banned the Caporalato system in 2011 following revelations of appalling working conditions and links to organised crime, but this appears to have had little effect. Indeed, groups are finding ways of avoiding legal oversight, such as having workers declare receipt of full pay cheques which they must then partially reimburse to the Caporali.
The ETI report advised retailers to urgently map their supply chains, prioritising those areas most at risk of exploiting migrant workers and to include assessment of wages paid and hours worked. They also called on companies to work with tomato processors and the government to address the situation.
Toxic tin linings
Bisphenol A (BPA) is an endocrine-disrupting chemical, meaning that is has potentially deleterious effects on reproduction and brain development. It is primarily used in the production of polycarbonate plastics and epoxy resins, which have many uses, from CDs and medical devices to impact-resistant safety equipment and dental sealants. The concern for many consumers around BPA is its role in food cans, bottle tops and jar lids, and the potential leakage of BPA into the food and drink later ingested by humans.
In 2015 the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) published the results of a re-evaluation of BPA carried out by one of its expert panels. This review found that BPA “poses no heath risks to consumers because current exposure to the chemical is too low to cause harm.”
However, the EFSA also significantly lowered the estimated safe level (tolerable daily intake or TDI) to 4 micrograms per kilogram of body weight, although this is temporary pending the outcome of a long-term study into the pre- and postnatal effects of BPA exposure.
The EFSA’s study found that public exposure to BPA is “well below” the new TDI of 4µg/kg of body weight per day, with the highest estimated exposure being 3-5 times lower than the new TDI. Dietary exposure is highest among infants and toddlers, given their higher food consumption per kilo of bodyweight, but this is still more than 4 times below the new TDI.
A person would have to ingest more than 400µg of BPA per kg of body weight per day to cause adverse kidney and liver effects. However, the EFSA said that effects of BPA on the reproductive, nervous, immune, metabolic and cardiovascular systems, as well as in the development of cancer “are not considered likely at present but they could not be excluded.”
Toxic BPA alternatives
However, choosing BPA-free packaging does not necessarily mean consumers are avoiding potentially harmful chemicals. A recent study by a consortium of North American non-profit organisations tested 192 cans from a range of companies and found four coating types besides BPA in use: acrylic resins, oleoresin, polyester resins and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) copolymers.
The report described these as “regrettable substitute[s]” several of these are known or potential carcinogens, including PVC and polystyrene:
We know very little about the additives used in these compounds to give them the properties that make them stable and effective can linings. Our research does demonstrate that there are multiple formulations of most of these compounds, but there is no way to determine the specific chemicals used or how they are produced ... the lack of safety data and unknown additives mean we have no reliable data attesting to the safety of [several of] these compounds.
Where do the companies stand?
Most of the companies in this guide have no policy on the use of BPA in their food packaging. Only two brands, Mr Organic and Essential, were totally BPA-free, while Biona and Heinz are partially BPA-free. Del Monte said “most” of its tomato products came in BPA-free packaging and that this would be clearly stated on the label. The company expected all of its packaging to be BPA-free by the end of 2017, with the tomato cans being lined with PVC instead.
In its response to Ethical Consumer’s company questionnaire, Suma explained why it continues to use BPA in its cans:
"We currently use BPA as a lining in our cans following advice from the European Food Safety Authority. Independent studies have shown that, even when consumed at high levels, BPA is rapidly absorbed, detoxified, and eliminated from humans. The government advises that the levels of BPA found in food from food contact materials are not a concern to health. We continue to monitor developments in food safety and technology and are looking at possible alternatives."
When asked about the use of BPA in its cans, Waitrose replied:
“BPA is only permitted for use in Waitrose branded canned goods where its presence in protective coatings and linings is critical in ensuring product safety. The use of BPA in this application will be phased out as developments in packaging technology provide a viable alternative. Testing of canned product containing BPA based protective coatings and linings is carried out to demonstrate that any migration of BPA into the product is within statutory limits.”
Essential Trading prefer the term ‘BPA non-intent’ because “BPA is ubiquitous in the natural environment, and very small amounts may be detected in non-BPA substances, as current technology measures in parts per billion. It therefore prefers to refer to “BPA non-intent”, rather than “BPA-free” as a more accurate term for these circumstances." Essential Trading stated that it did not intentionally use BPA in its canned goods and glass jar lids.
If you’re concerned about BPA or other undisclosed chemical linings of cans, you can choose jarred products, which have a smaller surface area in contact with the food. For tomatoes, this would mean buying passata instead of chopped or whole tomatoes. All of our best buys sell passata in glass jars apart from Waitrose Duchy Organic’s which comes in a tetrapak.
The best option is, of course, to use fresh tomatoes in your cooking.