(WKBN and CBS News) – Pittsburgh-based Starkist Co. is ordered to pay a $100 million fine for its role in a conspiracy to fix canned tuna prices in the United States.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, the price-fixing went on from November 2011 through at least as late as December 2013.
Starkist had requested a lower fine saying they could not afford the statutory maximum of $100 million, however, a federal judge agreed with investigators that Starkist had sufficient resources to pay the maximum criminal fine.
In addition to the criminal fine and term of probation, StarKist has also agreed to cooperate in the Antitrust Division’s ongoing investigation.
According to CBS News, the scheme came to light when an attempt by Thai Union Group Chicken of the Sea to buy San Diego-based Bumble Bee failed in 2015, according to court records.
Chicken of the Sea executives then alerted federal investigators, who agreed to shield the company from criminal prosecution in exchange for cooperation.
Bumble Bee Foods pleaded guilty in 2017 to the same charge and paid a $25 million fine, which was lower than anticipated. Prosecutors said they feared putting the financially struggling Bumble Bee out of business with a high fine.
Scott Meece, StarKist’s general counsel, asked the judge before sentencing to consider the company’s 2,600 U.S. employees.
“These employees have had this hanging over their heads for a long time,” Meece said. “They’re worried about what is going to happen to their jobs.”
Meece said the company will probably have to make cuts and could consider layoffs or relocating its plant from American Samoa to Thailand. SunKist is owned by South Korean company Dongwon Industries.
“Today’s result demonstrates our commitment to enforcing the antitrust laws aggressively against companies that fix prices,” said Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim of the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division. “Hard-working Americans deserve the benefits of open competition when they spend their hard-earned money on items that stock kitchen shelves. When a corporation cheats customers at the checkout line, the Antitrust Division will hold it accountable to the greatest extent.”
More lawsuits in connection to the price-fixing are ongoing. Two former executives from Bumble Bee and Starkist have pleaded guilty to price-fixing charges but have not been sentenced, according to CBS News.
A total of six charges have resulted from an ongoing federal antitrust investigation into the packaged-seafood industry, which is being conducted by the Antitrust Division’s San Francisco Office and the FBI’s San Francisco Field Office. Anyone with information on price fixing, bid rigging or other anticompetitive conduct related to the packaged-seafood industry should contact the Antitrust Division’s San Francisco Office at 415-934-5300, visit www.justice.gov/atr/contact/newcase.html, or call the FBI tip line at 415-553-7400.