Bumble Bee pleads guilty to conspiracy following other tragic tuna tales

The company's guilty plea on a price-fixing felony is just the latest in a trend of very bad news for Bumble Bee.

Late last year, we began to wonder whether we should pioneer a “price-fixing” beat to cover the seemingly endless string of collusion allegations and civil suits filed in Chicago’s federal court against the nation’s largest poultry companies.

That story continues to unfold: Reuters reported on Monday that Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi’s office had widened the ongoing legal probe into anticompetitive behavior by requesting information from Tyson Foods and Pilgrim’s Pride Corp. through a “civil investigative demand.” 

Our much-beloved chicken-of-the-land story may be slow to roll, but chicken-of-the-sea conspiracy can now be confirmed.

Though developments on poultry price-fixing are probably gonna be a minute, another conspiracy story we reported in December charges ahead. And we do mean “charges” quite literally: The Department of Justice (DOJ) Antitrust Division on Monday filed a one-count felony charge in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California in San Francisco against Bumble Bee Foods LLC, for its role in a conspiracy to fix the prices of shelf-stable, canned and pouch tuna fish.

Our much-beloved chicken-of-the-land story may be slow to roll, but chicken-of-the-sea conspiracy can now be confirmed: Bumble Bee agreed to plead guilty to the charge and pay a $25 million criminal fine (which will increase to a maximum of $81.5 million if the company is sold), in addition to agreeing to cooperate with the Antitrust Division as it continues to investigate.

“Today’s charge 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,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Andrew Finch of the Antitrust Division, in a press release published Monday on the DOJ’s website. “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.”

The charge comes at the tail end of a rough (and tragic and expensive) recent ride for Bumble Bee.

According to the charge, the conspiracy “consisted of a continuing agreement, understanding, and concert of action among the defendant and [unnamed] coconspirators, the substantial terms of which were to fix, raise, and maintain prices of packaged seafood,” beginning at least as early as the first quarter of 2011 and continuing until at least the fourth quarter of 2013.

The charge comes at the tail end of a rough (and tragic and expensive) recent ride for Bumble Bee. In October of 2012, Jose Melena, a worker at the company’s Santa Fe Springs, California processing facility, entered a 35-foot long, cylindrical steam pressure cooker to make a repair. Such ovens are used to sterilize many thousands of cans of uncooked tuna at a time. Not realizing he was inside the oven, fellow employees loaded the oven with cans, closed, and sealed the door. The temperature was set at more than 250 degrees. It was an unimaginably grisly death.

Two employees were charged with violating safety regulations, and the company itself was charged with three felony counts of willfully violating safety rules—resulting in death. Those charges were later reduced to misdemeanor labor code violations, after Bumble Bee agreed to a $6 million settlement (at the time, it was the largest known payout in a California criminal prosecution of workplace safety violations), $3 million in equipment updates, and $1.5 in restitution to Melena’s family.

The story doesn’t end there. Last year, the company voluntarily recalled more than 31,500 cans of Chunk Light tuna after its co-packer discovered during a routine audit that they may have been underprocessed. No illness associated with the products was ever reported. But that didn’t stop the story from colliding with a 21st century phenomenon: “fake news” (or what we prefer to call “lies”).

A Snopes fact-check explains how two purveyors of digital BS, News 4 KTLA and The Racket Report, wrote false stories inspired by actual news—they reproduced three-year-old stories about Melena’s death, falsely linking it to the recall. One headline read: “Massive Bumble Bee Recall After 2 Employees Admit Cooking a Man and Mixing Him with a Batch of Tuna.”

Perhaps only the recent headlines about collusion can outpace those related to Melena’s death. Either way, though, the (real) news for Bumble Bee isn’t good.

Also tagged

Kate Cox is The Counter's editor. She oversees partnerships and edits investigative, feature, and senior staff reporting. Prior to joining The Counter in 2015, Kate was a freelance reporter for radio and text, focused on health policy and the American age boom. She has written for The Guardian, The Nation, Huffington Post, and others. She holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, where she produced and reported a three-part radio documentary on the nation's first emergency shelter for victims of elder abuse.