Tuna price-fixing lawsuit allegations expand
A lawsuit claiming a price-fixing conspiracy between the so-called “big three” U.S. canned tuna companies – Bumble Bee Foods, StarKist and Tri-Union Seafoods, which owns Chicken of the Sea – has been amended to widen the scope and timeline of when the alleged illegal activity occurred.
The lawsuit, filed by major retailers including Walmart, SuperValu, Wegmans, Kroger, Albertsons, Hy-Vee, Publix, and Meijer, among others, was amended last week in advance of a court filing deadline. They allege that the tuna companies began illegally fixing the prices of their products as early as 2004. Last week, Bumble Bee pled guilty to one count of conspiracy and agreed to pay USD 25 million (EUR 22.8 million) for conspiring to set the cost of canned and pouched tuna in the United States. However, in its plea, Bumble Bee only admitted to fixing prices between 2011 and 2013.
Two other Bumble Bee executives have also pled guilty to price-fixing - Bumble Bee Seafoods’ Senior Vice President of Trade Marketing Ken Worsham and Senior Vice President of Sales Walter Scott Cameron each pled guilty in December 2016 and faced criminal fines.
In a statement, the U.S. Department of Justice said an investigation by its Antitrust Division remains active. The retailers’ lawsuit had been frozen due to the ongoing federal grand jury investigation, and it is unclear if that hold still stands following the amendment of their civil complaint.
On 12 May, the judge presiding over the civil lawsuit, agreed to a motion made on 9 May by the retailers to seal parts of their lawsuit. The new court documents now contain several pages of redactions, including a two-page “Conspiracy Players List.” An unredacted version of the list seen by SeafoodSource revealed it to contain the names of senior executives at StarKist and its owner, Dongwon, Bumble Bee, and Thai Union, which owns Tri-Union and Chicken of the Sea. Also listed is John Connelly, the president of the National Fisheries Institute, the trade group for the U.S. seafood industry. The original lawsuit claimed that the big three tuna companies engaged in conversations on price-fixing at meetings of the National Fisheries Institute’s Tuna Council.
In a statement emailed to SeafoodSource, NFI spokesperson Gavin Gibbons denied Connelly or his organization was involved in the price-fixing conspiracy.
"The National Fisheries Institute (NFI) was not involved in any anti-trust violations in any respect," Gibbons said.