U.S. Customs fines food company for imports made by forced labour in China

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A U.S. company has been fined US$575,000 by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) for importing powdered sweetener that was made by forced labour in China.

The penalty against Pure Circle U.S.A marked the first fine issued by the agency since the passage of the 2015 Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act that bans the import of goods made entirely or in part by forced labour, ranging from prison work to bonded child labour.

The agency seized a shipment of stevia – a plant extract used as a sweetener in sodas – in May 2016 after receiving information that it was made by prison labour. CBP did not specify where in China the product was produced.

The agency said subsequent investigations led it to obtain evidence that at least 20 shipments of stevia powder and derivatives had been processed in China with prison labour.

“As part of its trade enforcement responsibilities, CBP will hold companies accountable for importing goods produced with forced labour,” Brenda Smith, executive assistant commissioner of CBP’s Office of Trade, said in a statement on Thursday.

Pure Circle was not immediately available to comment, but the company in 2016 disputed the CBP’s findings and then said it had a policy prohibiting the use of prison or forced labour.

The Chinese embassy in Washington was not immediately available to comment.

The CBP has during the last year ramped up action over imports suspected to have been made with forced labour, having issued 11 detention orders since September 2019.

The agency in June blocked an $800,000 shipment of hair extensions and accessories from a firm based in Xinjiang, China.

The company, Lop County Meixin Hair Product Co, could not be reached for comment but a spokesperson for the Chinese embassy in the United States then said “the accusation of forced labour in Xinjiang is both false and malicious”.

The CBP last month also detained imports from Malaysia from two subsidiaries of medical glove maker Top Glove Corporation. The firm has petitioned against the import ban, and has started to repay recruitment fees to workers and improve their housing.

A company hit with a detention order can decide to reroute the shipment and try to sell their products elsewhere or persuade the CBP to change its decision by providing documents to demonstrate due diligence and argue the goods are slave-free.

More than US$400 billion worth of goods likely to be made by forced labour enter the U.S. market each year, according to estimates by the Human Trafficking Institute, a non-profit. (Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation)

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