Bumble Bee Foods, one of the nation’s largest producers of canned tuna, has agreed to plead guilty to federal criminal charges that it conspired with competing companies to fix the price of this common pantry seafood item.
The Department of Justice filed a one-count felony charge [PDF] against Bumble Bee this morning in a federal court in San Francisco.
According to the DOJ, for a period of at least two years, Bumble Bee knowingly conspired with other tuna producers to effectively set the price of self-stable tuna in the U.S., in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act. Last December, a Senior VP of Sales at Bumble Bee pled guilty to similar allegations. A second Bumble Bee VP entered a guilty plea a few weeks later, though his employer was not disclosed at the time.
The court documents do not name the alleged co-conspirators, but the DOJ has indicated that these three deals are part of a larger investigation into antitrust issues within the seafood industry.
Civil suits have alleged price-fixing by all the larger players in the U.S. tuna market, yet only Bumble Bee has been charged by the DOJ thus far.
The DOJ says Bumble Bee will pay a $25 million criminal fine, though that could increase to as much as $81.5 million if Bumble Bee is sold to another company. Chicken of the Sea parent company Thai Union attempted to purchase Bumble Bee in 2014, but that merger fell apart when the DOJ raised objections.
Bumble Bee’s plea agreement is still subject to court approval.