One year ago on Friday, I wrote about the “Big Three” canned seafood suppliers—Bumble Bee, StarKist, and Tri-Union, which owns Chicken of the Sea—and ongoing efforts by the Department of Justice (DOJ) to hold them accountable for allegedly conspiring to keep prices of the other other white meat artificially high.
Now, DOJ has handed down perhaps the most significant criminal charge in the continuing investigation to date—of Bumble Bee’s CEO Christopher Lischewski. On Wednesday night, the department announced that a federal grand jury had returned an indictment against Lischewski, who has been with the company since 1999, for participating in a conspiracy to fix prices on packaged seafood sold in the United States.
We might’ve dubbed 2017 the Year of Epic Protein Collusion: throughout much of it, we were chasing the seemingly endless rollout of price-fixing conspiracy allegations and class-actions against the poultry industry. But then, in late spring, tuna went the way of the bird.
On May 9 of 2017, Bumble Bee itself pleaded guilty to one count of felony price-fixing and agreed to pay a $25-million fine for its role in “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.
A guilty plea from StarKist’s former vice president of sales, Bumble Bee’s senior vice president, and several lawsuits filed by major retailers—Target, Kroger, and Walmart among them—followed shortly after.
If you’re wondering about Chicken-of-the-Sea’s plea, it appears to be something along the lines of “quid pro quo.” Stay with me here: As Law360 reported in September, Thai Union, the global seafood company that owns Tri-Union, which does business as Chicken of Sea, outed its own American subsidiary as a whistleblower in exchange for leniency.
Tuna intrigue, people. Tuna intrigue.
But what’s really worth remembering is that, while corporate charges can be significant in theory, they can also be innocuous in practice. For Bumble Bee, one of the world’s largest seafood companies, with more than 1,000 employees and doing as much as $1 billion in annual sales, a $25 million fine and a single felony count can fade pretty quickly into memory. That’s why Lischewski’s indictment may ultimately send a more powerful message—if only because corporate food executives are so rarely held criminally responsible for violations of the public’s trust. (Though, they are occasionally held criminally responsible for violations of the public’s health.)
“This indictment demonstrates the personal accountability of senior leadership at corporations,” said special agent in charge of the investigation John F. Bennett in the DOJ announcement. “The FBI and the Department of Justice will hold corporate leaders accountable for criminal actions that defraud American families.”
Lischewski could face up to 10 years in prison and more than $1 million dollars in fines if he is found guilty.