Three popular tuna brands conspired to fix prices, court records allege

Here’s the funny thing about canned tuna: Even as Americans lost their taste for the fish and demand dropped steadily for years, the price of a can seemed to hold steady or rise.

For some, it was an economic riddle.

“Given what was happening to demand, the price of tuna should have declined,” said Andrew F. Smith, author of “American Tuna: The Rise and Fall of an Improbable Fish.”

It didn’t.

Now, there’s a new theory for the price of tuna. According to a lawsuit filed by one of the nation’s largest retailers, the price of tuna was held aloft because executives at the nation’s three largest tuna brands — Bumble Bee, Starkist and Chicken of the Sea — were colluding to fix prices.

Citing email, industry conferences and phone calls, attorneys for Walmart allege that the tuna brands set the price of tuna in order to defy economic forces that ordinarily would have pushed prices down.

Last week, in a related criminal case filed by the Justice Department, Bumble Bee Foods pleaded guilty to conspiring to fix prices sold in the United States between 2011 and 2013. The firm has agreed to pay a $25 million fine.

In addition, two Bumble Bee senior vice presidents, Ken Worsham and Walter Scott Cameron, pleaded guilty to fixing prices. They agreed to cooperate with federal authorities in the ongoing criminal investigation.

The Walmart lawsuit alleges a much broader and longer-lasting conspiracy among the three tuna brands. None of the three answered invitations to comment.

“We believe there is strong evidence that suppliers of canned tuna to Walmart conspired to artificially inflate and wrongfully fix prices in order to increase their own profits at the expense of consumers,” said Randy Hargrove, a spokesman for Walmart.

In Walmart’s view, laid out in court documents, the conspiracy among the three companies, which control about 80 percent of the U.S. market, began by 2010, at the latest, and lasted through July 2015. During that period, Walmart alleges it was overcharged by the tuna companies.

“Senior executives met at least twice annually and regularly discussed prices and shared sensitive customer information,” according to the Walmart lawsuit. Walmart also alleged that the tuna companies agreed to spurn aggressive sales tactics — that is, they weren’t going to compete too hard.

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