Canned tuna giant StarKist was slammed with a $100 million fine Wednesday for its role in widespread price fixing in the industry, U.S. Department of Justice officials said.
U.S. District Court Judge Edward Chen in San Francisco imposed the maximum statutory fine on Pittsburgh-based StarKist and its South Korean parent company, Dongwon, despite the company’s plea for a lower $50 million penalty.
The DOJ Antitrust Division opposed StarKist’s argument that the higher penalty might put it in danger of bankruptcy, maintaining that StarKist had sufficient financial resources to pay. Chen also imposed a 13-month probationary period on the company, which agreed to cooperate in the Antitrust Division’s continuing investigation of the tuna business.
“Today’s result demonstrates our commitment to enforcing the antitrust laws aggressively against companies that fix prices,” said Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim of the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division. “Hard-working Americans deserve the benefits of open competition when they spend their hard-earned money on items that stock kitchen shelves. When a corporation cheats customers at the checkout line, the Antitrust Division will hold it accountable to the greatest extent.”
StarKist was swept up in a broader investigation that started when Thai Union Group Chicken of the Sea tried to buy San Diego-based Bumble Bee Foods in 2015. Chicken of the Sea executives cooperated with federal investigators as details of the 2011-13 price fixing between the three companies emerged.
Bumble Bee paid a $25 million fine in 2017, less than had been originally sought by prosecutors because the company was in a more precarious financial state than its rivals. The companies also face an array of civil lawsuits from supermarket chains and other customers.
“StarKist is committed to being a socially responsible company and doing the right thing. We have cooperated with the DOJ during the course of its investigation and accept responsibility,” said Andrew Choe, StarKist’s president and CEO, in a statement issued after the sentencing. “We will continue to conduct our business with the utmost transparency and integrity. We have addressed the necessary actions required in this agreement and we will continue to strengthen related compliance best practices.”