Bumble Bee Pleads Guilty to Price-Fixing Tuna

(CN) – Packaged tuna giant Bumble Bee pleaded guilty to criminal charges Monday for price-fixing canned tuna in a growing scandal that has so far cost the San Diego-based company $25 million.

The tuna company conspired to fix prices on shelf-stable tuna and packaged seafood from at least 2011 to 2013, according to a one-count felony charge filed in San Francisco’s federal court Monday.

Other coconspirators who participated in the price-fixing scandal were not charged in the case, according to court documents.

But the criminal complaint does reveal that Bumble Bee met with “representatives of other major packaged-seafood producing firms” and “agreed and reached mutual understandings during these conversations, discussions, and meetings, to fix, raise, and maintain the prices of packaged seafood sold in the United States.”

Bumble Bee and the coconspirators then went on to negotiate prices with its grocery suppliers and grocery store customers “in accordance with the agreements and mutual understandings reached,” according to the Department of Justice.

Many of those grocery stores and suppliers have piled onto a giant class action against Bumble Bee and other tuna giants over the conspiracy making its way through San Diego’s federal court.

Jill Irvin, senior vice president and general counsel for Bumble Bee said in a statement that the seafood company “takes this matter very seriously” and cooperated with the DOJ investigation “from the start.”

“We have established strong guidelines and new internal policies for our path forward, which is being overseen by a chief compliance officer that we hired last fall,” Irvin said.

“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,” she added.

The company declined to confirm or deny if a sale or merger is in the works. If so, it would tack on an additional $56.5 million – bringing the total criminal fine to $85 million – that would be paid by a buyer, according to the terms of the plea agreement.

Bumble Bee nixed a proposed merger with Tri-Union Seafoods – aka Chicken of the Sea – in 2015 after the Justice Department expressed “serious concerns” a merger could violate antitrust laws and harm competition.

Monday’s charge was the third filed in the ballooning DOJ investigation into price-fixing by some of the largest suppliers of packaged seafood, according to court documents, although it was the first filed against a corporate defendant.

“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,” Acting Assistant Attorney General Andrew Finch, with the DOJ’s Antitrust Division, said in a statement.

A status hearing in a class action case against Bumble Bee and other tuna giants including Chicken of the Sea and Starkist is scheduled for May 18 in San Diego’s federal court.

The DOJ investigation is ongoing.

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