Direct Action Plaintiff Files Third Complaint in Tuna Antitrust Suit

Associated Wholesale Grocers, Inc. (AWG) has filed its third amended complaint in a seafood antitrust action, alleging that for years the three largest domestic producers of canned or pouched tuna conspired to fix, raise, and maintain product prices. The direct action plaintiff’s Monday complaint recites the conspiracy allegations primarily raised against Bumble Bee Foods LLC, StarKist Company, Chicken of the Sea International, Inc. (COSI), and several of their executives.

According to the Southern District of California filing, by the early 2000s, the “Big 3” producers dominated the industry, producing over 80% of all canned tuna sold domestically. AWG alleges that beginning no later than May 2004, and continuing through at least July 2015, the Big 3 colluded by secretly exchanging price information and business plans, coordinating price announcements, and collectively reducing quantity and restraining output. The plaintiff contends that in turn, it paid “dramatically increase[d]” prices for canned tuna.

The complaint notes that the conspiracy was only unveiled after the U.S. Department of Justice began to investigate the industry, initially when defendant Thai Union Group PCL, Tri-Union’s parent entity, announced its intent to acquire Bumble Bee for $1.5  billion in late 2014. The investigation, still ongoing, has resulted in multi-million dollar criminal fines levied against the companies and several criminal sentences against executives, like former Bumble Bee CEO Christopher Lischewski.

In another class action, the seafood producers appealed the trial court’s grant of class certification to the Ninth Circuit. The matter is pending before the tribunal after the parties and amici curiae, including the American Antitrust Institute, briefed the issues and argued on Oct. 9, 2020.

The instant complaint seeks to hold the defendants accountable for violations of Section 1 of the Sherman Act, and the Kansas Restraint of Trade Act. AWG seeks the recovery of treble damages, and its attorneys’ fees and costs, among other requests.

AWG is represented by Stueve Siegel Hanson LLP.