Convicted tuna price-fixing CEO offers stark warning to salmon industry

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“It has already started”.

Last month, Christopher Lischewski, former Chief Executive Officer and President of Bumble Bee Foods, was sentenced to serve 40 months in jail and pay a USD 100,000 criminal fine for his leadership role in a three-year antitrust conspiracy to fix prices of canned tuna.

In a press release, the Department of Justice wrote that after a four-week trial in late 2019, he was convicted on the single count of participating in a conspiracy to fix prices of canned tuna.

In imposing Lischewski’s 40-month prison sentence, the court found that Lischewski was “a leader or organiser of the conspiracy and that it affected over USD 600 million dollars of canned tuna sales”.

The company, which was the largest North American brand of packaged seafood, filed for bankruptcy last November, CNN reported.

In an interview with Seafood Source, the former CEO had a few words of warning for the salmon industry. Last year, the US Department of Justice opened a criminal investigation and sent subpoenas from the Antitrust Division to Norwegian salmon farmers such as Mowi, SalMar and Grieg Seafood over price fixing allegations. All companies have firmly denied the allegations.

Lischewski explained to the publication that he was hoping to appeal over the constitutionality of the Per Se rule under of which he was prosecuted.

“The Per Se rule is a judge-created addition to the Sherman Antitrust Act that came into force in 1898 when price fixing was a misdemeanor with a maximum fine of USD 1,000 (EUR 890). Under the Per Se rule, any act of price-fixing is defined as unreasonable and the government only needs to show the existence of an agreement to obtain a conviction,” he said.

“They do not have to show that the price-fixing agreement was ever put into place, that it was effective or that there was any harm to consumers. We believe the Per Se rule violates the Fifth Amendment and Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and it should be up to the jury – not the court – to make the determination of what is unreasonable,” added Lischewski.

SeafoodSource then asked Lischewski: Do you believe the government is likely to pursue future antitrust cases against other food companies, and specifically, against other seafood companies or sectors?

“It has already started,” said Lischewski. “The Department of Justice is now targeting the U.S. beef processing, poultry, and salmon industries for price-fixing.

“In salmon, Mowi and Scottish Sea Farms co-owners SalMar and Leroy have been sent subpoenas. If the low bar of the Per Se rule is allowed to be applied to all of these companies, they face the same challenges that the tuna industry has endured,” he added.