Bumble Bee exec pleads guilty to fixing prices of canned tuna

Published on
December 7, 2016

Bumble Bee Senior Vice President of Sales Walter Scott Cameron has agreed to plead guilty to a charge that he helped fix the prices of canned tuna sold throughout the United States, according to a press release issued Wednesday, 7 December by the U.S. Department of Justice.

The charge and guilty plea are the first formal action taken by federal authorities in a joint criminal antitrust investigation by the Justice Department and the FBI. The one-count felony charge was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California in San Francisco, and Cameron’s guilty plea acknowledges that he and unidentified co-conspirators agreed to fix the prices of packaged seafood from as early as 2011 until about 2013, according to the Justice Department press release.

“Today’s charge is the first to be filed in the Antitrust Division’s ongoing investigation into price fixing among some of the largest suppliers of canned tuna and other packaged seafood,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Renata Hesse of the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division. “All consumers deserve competitive prices for these important kitchen staples, and companies and executives who cheat those consumers will be held criminally accountable.”

In addition to his guilty plea, which is subject to court approval, Cameron has agreed to pay a criminal fine and cooperate with the division’s ongoing investigation, the Justice Department said.

In a statement, Jill Irvin, Bumble Bee’s Senior Vice President and General Counsel, said “Bumble Bee continues to fully cooperate with the Department of Justice in regards to its ongoing investigation into the packaged seafood industry.”

“Scott [Cameron] has also cooperated with the Company and with the Department of Justice in the investigation,” Irvin said. “The Company is hopeful that it can reach a resolution with DOJ on this matter, as it relates to the Company, in early 2017. Because the investigation is ongoing, we cannot provide any additional information or comments on this matter at this time.”

According to the Justice Department, Cameron has pled guilty to discussing with his co-conspirators the prices of packaged seafood sold in the United States and agreeing to fix the prices of those products. Cameron and his co-conspirators negotiated prices and issued price announcements for packaged seafood in accordance with the agreements they reached, the DOJ said.

“FBI San Francisco Division echoes the comments of the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division,” said Special Agent in Charge John F. Bennett of the FBI’s San Francisco Division. “These charges demonstrate our continued commitment to investigate and pursue those individuals and companies seeking to victimize consumers through illegal business practices that threaten our community’s ability to pay fair prices for food for their families.”

A number of American retailers, including Walmart, have recently sued Bumble Bee Foods, StarKist and Tri-Union Seafoods, the owner of Chicken of the Sea – dubbed the “big three” tuna companies because they own a combined 70 to 80 percent of the multibillion-dollar packaged tuna industry in the United States – for fixing prices. But their suits have been held up due to a motion filed by the DOJ in January to stay discovery in the civil cases brought by retailers, and another suit brought by U.S. consumers, in order to aid an ongoing federal grand jury investigation into the matter.

The Walmart suit alleges that the “big three” carried out their scheme through in-person meetings, as well as through emails and telephone calls. The scheme was aided by close relationships between both the executives at the companies and by intermingled business relationships, such as the co-packaging deal that had Chicken of the Sea packing Bumble Bee’s product in its Lyons, Georgia plant and Bumble Bee packing Chicken of the Sea’s products in its Santa Fe Springs, California plant, the retailers allege.

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