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From Antitrust Law Daily, May 08, 2017

Bumble Bee Foods pleads guilty to fixing prices of tuna

By Jody Coultas, J.D.

The Department of Justice announced that Bumble Bee Foods LLC will plead guilty to conspiring to fix the prices of shelf-stable tuna fish, such as canned and pouch tuna, sold in the United States. This is the third charge filed in response to an investigation into price fixing in the packaged seafood industry, and the first against a corporate defendant. Bumble Bee agreed to pay a $25 million fine (U.S. v. Bumble Bee Foods LLC, May 8, 2017).

In a complaint filed in the federal district court in San Francisco, the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division alleged that Bumble Bee and its co-conspirators agreed to fix the prices of shelf-stable tuna fish from as early as the first quarter of 2011 through at least as late as the fourth quarter of 2013.

When a proposed merger in the industry was abandoned in 2015 in light of a Justice Department challenge, government concerns about the competition in the marketplace were disclosed. In the face of a challenge in late 2015, Thai Union Group P.C.L.—the owner of Tri-Union Seafoods LLC, doing business as Chicken of the Sea International—and Lion Capital LLP mutually agreed to terminate plans to acquire Bumble Bee Foods, LLC.

The $25 million criminal fine agreed to by Bumble Bee will increase to a maximum criminal fine of $81.5 million, payable by a related entity, in the event of a sale of Bumble Bee subject to certain terms and conditions. Bumble Bee has also agreed to cooperate with the Antitrust Division’s ongoing investigation.

In December 2016, an executive at an unidentified and unindicted San Diego-based producer of packaged seafood producer agreed to plead guilty for his role in a conspiracy to fix prices (U.S. v. Cameron, Case No. 16 CR 501).

A number of private suits have been filed alleging that Bumble Bee Foods, Tri-Union Seafoods, and StarKist have collusively raised prices, by—among other things—decreasing the size of the cans of tuna without also decreasing prices. These complaints contend that the producers had an opportunity to conspire based on attendance at industry groups and trade associations. Suits have been brought by supermarkets, as well as consumers.

Companies: Bumble Bee Foods LLC; Tri-Union Seafoods LLC; StarKist Co.

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