SEATTLE - Attorney General Bob Ferguson announced a judge ruled that StarKist, a canned tuna manufacturer, engaged in a price-fixing scheme from November 2011 through December 2013. In a prior and unrelated federal case against StarKist, a federal judge sentenced the company to pay a $100 million criminal fine — the maximum allowed by law — for its role in a nationwide conspiracy to manipulate the price of canned tuna to benefit the company and its executives.
Ferguson filed a lawsuit in June 2020 asserting that StarKist, its parent company Dongwon Industries and former Bumble Bee Foods CEO Christopher Lischewski, engaged in a price-fixing conspiracy involving Bumble Bee, Chicken of the Sea and StarKist to drive up the price of packaged tuna, violating Washington’s Consumer Protection Act (CPA). As a result, Washington residents paid millions more than they should have. StarKist is the leading manufacturer of packaged tuna, accounting for 40 percent of the market share. Washington was the first state to sue StarKist for the price fixing scheme, and was the first to reach a legally binding agreement, in October 2020, with Lischewski.
Ferguson’s office filed a motion in January 2020 asking the judge to conclude, prior to trial, that StarKist had violated the CPA by participating in a conspiracy to fix the price of canned tuna. On Friday afternoon, King County Superior Court Judge Julie Spector ruled that the Attorney General’s Office had shown enough evidence to conclude StarKist had violated the CPA when it artificially manipulated the price of canned tuna in Washington state.
The court also rejected a motion from Dongwon Industries asking the judge to dismiss the Attorney General’s case against it.
Judge Spector’s decision resolves a portion of the Attorney General’s claims against StarKist. Ferguson’s office asserts that StarKist’s conduct took place over a longer period of time, between 2004-2015, and plans to prove that at trial. Ferguson is seeking both monetary and injunctive relief to hold Starkist accountable and prevent the company and its executives from engaging in corporate price-fixing conspiracies in the future.
Discovery in the case is ongoing.
“StarKist made Washingtonians pay more money for basic food items because corporate executives engaged in an illegal price-fixing scheme,” Ferguson said. “We will hold StarKist and its co-conspirators accountable at trial, and get back the money Washingtonians overpaid because of this corporate greed.”
In October 2020, the Attorney General’s Office came to a legally binding agreement with Lischewski, the former Bumble Bee CEO. Under the agreement, he will pay $100,000 to Washington for his role in the price-fixing scheme. He is currently serving a 40-month sentence in federal prison in Arizona after a jury found him guilty of criminal price-fixing.
Lischewski complained to other tuna executives before they began the price-fixing scheme that canned tuna was “too cheap” and he wanted the price artificially increased for consumers. Two of Lischewski’s subordinates testified that he gave “a very clear, direct” order to fix canned tuna prices. In subsequent years, the companies regularly exchanged information about their sales and plans for pricing.
From 2011 through 2013, Lischewski worked with the executives of Chicken of the Sea and StarKist, the largest manufacturer of canned tuna in the world, to artificially control the prices consumers paid for packaged tuna. For example, under the scheme, a consumer who would have normally paid $1 for a five-ounce can of chunk light tuna — one of the most popular tuna products on the market — may have instead have paid $1.08 as a result of this conspiracy.
The Office of the Attorney General's Antitrust Division is responsible for enforcing the antitrust provisions of Washington's Unfair Business Practices-Consumer Protection Act. The division investigates and litigates complaints of anticompetitive conduct and reviews potentially anticompetitive mergers. The division also brings actions in federal court under the federal antitrust laws. It receives no general fund support, funding its own actions through recoveries made in other cases.