Shortly before announcing its comprehensive FCPA settlement with DOJ and the SEC, Pilgrim’s Pride agreed with the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division to plead guilty to price-fixing in the chicken processing industry.
Pilgrim’s Pride is one of the largest poultry producers in the United States. The plea agreement was restricted to three contracts to a customer in the United States.
Under the plea agreement, Pilgrim’s Pride will pay a fine of approximately $110.5 million. The Justice Department agreed not to bring any additional charges, not to impose a compliance monitor, or to seek restitution or a period of probation.
The Antitrust Division’s criminal investigation became public in 2019, three years after civil litigation involving alleged price-fixing in the chicken industry. Tyson was the first chicken processing company to cooperate under the Antitrust Division’s leniency program.
In June 2019, the Antitrust Division revealed its investigation when it notified the Illinois federal court overseeing multidistrict litigation to seek a partial discovery stay pending the completion of the criminal probe.
Recently, the Justice Department returned a superseding indictment charging ten defendants with criminal price-fixing conspiracy. In June 2020, the original indictment charged Pilgrim’s Pride executives, Jayson Penn and Roger Austin, the sitting president and CEO, and the former vice president, respectively.
In the superseding indictment, the Antitrust Division charged two additional Pilgrim officers and managers: William Lovette, the former president and CEO, and Jimmie Little, a sales director. Jimmie Little was also charged with making false statements and obstruction of justice for lying to investigators.
Little was interviewed by federal agents before being charged in the case. During the interview, Little denied having any contact with any competitors in the industry, communicating via text with competitors and having no knowledge of the ongoing price-fixing conspiracy.
The alleged conspiracy to fix prices and rig bids for chicken products from 2012 to 2019. As outlined in detail in the indictment, the defendants communicated via phone, text and email to coordinate bids to sell chicken products to purchase cooperatives, restaurants and grocery chain stores.
Pilgrim Pride’s settlement involved a November 2012 contract in which Roger Austin and Jayson Penn communicated with colleagues from Claxton Poultry and other companies to ensure that the competitors maintained a specific price level during negotiations.
The second contract price-fixing activity occurred in March 2013 during which Pilgrim Pride coordinated its pricing of its products with Claxton Poultry to supply dark meat chicken pieces.
Finally, in 2014, a cooperative negotiated process and supply of 8-piece chicken supply for 2015. Austin and a Claxton Poultry executive spoke to each other and coordinated with other suppliers. Pilgrim Price raised its prices and coordinated with Claxton Poultry and other suppliers to maintain price increases over the objections of the cooperative customer.