WASHINGTON-A Bumble Bee Foods executive has agreed to plead guilty to fixing prices on canned tuna, the first criminal charges in an ongoing Justice Department probe in the packaged seafood industry.
Prosecutors on Wednesday said Walter Scott Cameron would plead guilty to one felony charge for fixing prices on packaged seafood from 2011 to 2013. Mr. Cameron, identified in a court document as a senior vice president of sales, has agreed to pay a criminal fine and cooperate in the investigation, the department said.
According to the charges, Mr. Cameron engaged in discussions and meetings with counterparts at other major seafood-producing firms and agreed to "fix, raise and maintain the prices of packaged seafood" sold to U.S. consumers.
The charges identify Bumble Bee only as "Company A," but the firm confirmed Mr. Cameron is an employee who is currently on paid leave.
Bumble Bee's general counsel, Jill Irvin, said the company is fully cooperating with the Justice Department, which has been probing anticompetitive behavior in the industry.
"The company is hopeful that it can reach a resolution with DOJ on this matter, as it relates to the company, in early 2017," she said. "Because the investigation is ongoing, we cannot provide any additional information or comments on this matter at this time."
A lawyer for Mr. Cameron couldn't immediately be reached for comment.
Three tuna brands dominate the U.S. market: StarKist, Bumble Bee and Chicken of the Sea. All three tuna makers are facing private lawsuits alleging they engaged in price fixing. A StarKist spokeswoman declined to comment. Chicken of the Sea didn't respond to a request for comment.
The Justice Department didn't say how much consumers might have been overcharged by the alleged price-fixing.
Renata Hesse, head of the department's antitrust division, said, "All consumers deserve competitive prices for these important kitchen staples, and companies and executives who cheat those consumers will be held criminally accountable."
The department has spent a considerable amount of time examining the industry. Last year Thai Union Group PCL, a large international seafood producer that holds the Chicken of the Sea brand, dropped its proposed $1.5 billion acquisition of Bumble Bee after the Justice Department objected on antitrust grounds.
The department at the time said the market was "not functioning competitively" and would only get worse with consolidation.
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