Bumble Bee, the iconic tuna brand and staple of the modern American diet, filed for bankruptcy protection Nov. 21, seeking relief from debts including an outstanding $17 million owed the U.S. government in criminal penalties.
The company was hit with a $25 million fine when it settled charges for its part in a price-fixing scheme with competitors Starkist and Chicken of the Sea. Bumble Bee was in financial difficulty even before government investigators began looking into the mass-market canned tuna business, and along with the other companies is facing civil litigation from customers.
Federal prosecutors in San Francisco say the case began when Thai Union Group Chicken of the Sea tried to buy San Diego-based Bumble Bee Foods in 2015, leading to discovery of a 2011-2013 price fixing scheme. Starkist was hit with the biggest penalty of $100 million, but a court imposed a lesser penalty of $25 million on Bumble Bee because its financial state was in deeper jeopardy than competitors.
In a Nov. 21 statement Bumble Bee CEO Jan Tharp said the brand will continue to operate. A chain of corporate ownership most recently left Bumble Bee in the hands of Lion Capital based in the United Kingdom. But for almost a century the brand has had a public U.S. identity, from sardine canneries in Maine to the Pacific tuna hub of American Samoa.
“Employees will get paid, our customer partners can count on us to continue delivering outstanding brands and services, and vendors will be paid in the ordinary course of business,”said Tharp.
On top of criminal penalties, Bumble Bee and the other tuna companies are embroiled in civil lawsuits brought by Walmart and other retailers who say they were ripped off by the conspiracy.