Bumble Bee to plead guilty to conspiracy to fix prices of shelf-stable tuna fish products

Also pay a $25 million criminal fine
fili@samoanews.com

For its conspiracy role to fix the prices of shelf-stable tuna fish, such as canned and pouch tuna, sold in the US, the San Diego based Bumble Bee Foods LLC has agreed to plead guilty to the charge and also pay a $25 million criminal fine, according to the US Justice Department.

Last December two Bumble Bee executives — Walter Scott Cameron and Kenneth Worsham — were charged in separate indictments handed down by a federal grand jury sitting in San Francisco for conspiring to fix the prices of packaged seafood such as canned tuna sold in the United States.

The pair also agreed to plead guilty and their next court appearance is later this year.

For Bumble Bee, a major competitor to StarKist Samoa’s canned and pouch tuna products — the company was charged Monday at the federal court in San Francisco under a four-page information complaint.

The USDOJ alleges that beginning as early as the first quarter of 2011 and continuing until at least the fourth quarter of 2013, the defendant and its co-conspirators knowingly entered into and engaged in a combination and conspiracy to fix, raise and maintain the prices of shelf-stable tuna fish sold in the U.S, according to the complaint.

It further alleges that various business organizations and individuals, not made defendants in this information complaint, participated as co-conspirators.

Means and methods of the conspiracy include among other things:

•     Engaged in conversations and discussions and attended meetings with representatives of other major packaged-seafood-producing firms;

•     Agreed and reached mutual understandings during these conversations, discussions and meetings, to fix, raise and maintain the prices of packaged seafood sold in the U.S.; and

•     Negotiated prices with customers and issued price announcements for packaged seafood in accordance with the agreements and mutual understandings reached.

In announcing the complaint, USDOJ says that in addition to agreeing to pleading guilty on the one-count charge, Bumble Bee has agreed to pay a $25 million criminal fine, which 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 USDOJ Antitrust Division’s ongoing investigation. The plea agreement is subject to court approval.

Specific details of the plea agreement have not yet been made public on federal online court records.

Responding to Samoa News inquiries, Bumble Bee’s senior vice president of general counsel, Jill Irvin said the company through a plea agreement, has reached resolution with the USDOJ in regards to its federal antitrust investigation.

“The Company has taken this matter very seriously and fully cooperated with the DOJ from the start of the investigation,” she said via email yesterday. “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.”

“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 said.

Asked as to what efforts have been made by the company to ensure that this type of action does not occur again in the future, Irvin said, “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.”

Acting Assistant Attorney General Andrew Finch of the USDOJ’s Antitrust Division said in a national news release that the charge Monday is the third to be filed — and the first to be filed against a corporate defendant — in the Antitrust Division’s ongoing investigation into price fixing among some of the largest suppliers of packaged seafood.

“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,” he said.

Special Agent in Charge John F. Bennett of the FBI’s San Francisco Division said in the joint USDOJ news release that companies “small and large hold a great deal of the American peoples’ trust and this type of unfair, greedy behavior will not be tolerated.”

Anyone with information on price fixing, bid rigging or other anticompetitive conduct related to the packaged seafood industry is encourage to contact the Antitrust Division’s Citizen Complaint Center at (888) 647-3258, visit www.justice.gov/atr/contact/newcase.html, or call the FBI tip line at (415) 553-7400.

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