Canned tuna is always a good go-to for a simple source of cheap protein. But according to the US Justice Department, for years, the seafood staple should have been even cheaper. And now, one the largest tuna producers, Bumble Bee, will be paying the price of its greed – in the form of a $25 million fine.
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Yesterday, the Justice Department announced that Bumble Bee Foods LLC agreed to plead guilty to a one-count felony charge stating that the company conspired with others in the packaged seafood industry to fix the price of shelf-stable canned tuna from 2011 to 2013. As a result, Bumble Bee will also pay a $25 million criminal fine. Though the charge doesn’t specifically name Bumble Bee’s co-conspirators, the canned tuna industry is dominated by just two other companies: Chicken of the Sea (which is owned by Thai Union) and StarKist. In 2015, Thai Union even tried to buy out Bumble Bee, but the Justice Department put the kibosh on that acquisition, stating at the time (with a bit of foreshadowing) that “the market is not functioning competitively today, and further consolidation would only make things worse.”
For those following the packaged seafood industry, the plea doesn’t come out of the blue. In fact, two of Bumble Bee’s senior vice presidents pled guilty to price fixing this past December. And as to whether other brands could get caught up in this crackdown, the Justice Department certainly seemed to leave that possibility open. “[We] will continue to hold these companies and their executives accountable for conduct that targeted a staple in American households,” Acting Assistant Attorney General Andrew Finch of the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division was quoted as saying.
For its part, Bumble Bee said it’s already changed its tune. “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,” Jill Irvin, the company’s general counsel, said in a statement.
What hasn’t come to light is exactly how much the Justice Department thinks this price fixing scheme actually increased the price of cans of tuna.