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Three major tuna brands involved in price-fixing controversy

Starkist in “tough position” as co-defendant pleads guilty, another begins “cooperating”

Three leading seafood brands are currently involved in a lawsuit that is unfolding in California federal court.

Executives from Bumble Bee Foods LLC, Starkist Co. and Tri-Union Seafoods LLC have either admitted to or are accused of conspiring to fix prices on packaged tuna over several years.

Bumble Bee Foods LLC agreed to pay a $25 million criminal fine. The penalty may balloon up to $81.5 million should the company be sold.

“Today’s charge is the third to be filed – and the first to be filed against a corporate defendant – in the Antitrust Division’s ongoing investigation into price fixing among some of the largest suppliers of packaged seafood,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Andrew Finch of the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division in a prepared statement.

“The division, along with our law enforcement colleagues, will continue to hold these companies and their executives accountable for conduct that targeted a staple in American households.”

SVP of sales Walter Scott Cameron and SVP Kenneth Worsham of Bumble Bee have both pleaded guilty to charges levied against them individually.

Between the years of 2011 and 2013, Bumble Bee totaled at least $300 million in sales, according to court documents. During this time, both Worsham and Cameron “participated in a conspiracy with other persons and entities engaged in the manufacture and sale of packaged seafood, the primary purpose of which was to fix, raise, and maintain the prices of packaged seafood sold in the United States,” each defendant’s plea agreements states.

“In furtherance of the conspiracy, the defendant engaged in conversations and discussions and attended meetings with representatives of other major packaged-seafood-producing firms. During these conversations, discussions, and meetings, agreements and mutual understandings were reached to fix, raise, and maintain the prices of packages seafood sold in the United States.”

"We accept full responsibility for needing to earn back any lost trust in our Company and will do so by acting with integrity and transparency in every way we operate our business," Bumble Bee General Counsel Jill Irvin said in a statement, according to CNN.

Jason Hartley, of Stueve Siegel Hanson LLP, and his client, Trepco Imports & Distributors LTD, one of the plaintiffs, believe that the conspiracy stretched on for considerably longer.

“We’ve alleged that the conspiracy has gone back all the way to 2004,” Hartley said.  

“The Antitrust Division and its law enforcement partners are once again sending a strong signal that high-ranking executives responsible for fixing the price of shelf-stable tuna must be held accountable,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Renata Hesse of the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division in a prepared statement.

In the wake of the case, the Department of Justice (DOJ) stalled out a planned merger of Bumble Bee and Tri-Union’s Chicken of the Sea International brand.

The two sides “abandoned their plans to merge after the [DOJ] informed the companies it had serious concerns that the proposed transaction would harm competition,” reads a DOJ statement.

One Chicken of the Sea executive who has not yet been named is “cooperating,” according to Hartley.

He said this puts StarKist in a “tough spot,” as it may soon stand alone as the only alleged conspirator to refrain from declaring guilt.

“Companies small and large hold a great deal of the American peoples’ trust and this type of unfair, greedy behavior will not be tolerated,” Special Agent in Charge John F. Bennett of the FBI’s San Francisco Division said in a prepared statement.

Bumble Bee is headquartered in San Diego as is Tri-Union. Starkist is headquartered in Pittsburgh.

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @DanAMX

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