Chicken giant Pilgrim’s Pride pleads guilty to price-fixing

Michael Hirtzer
Bloomberg News

Pilgrim’s Pride Corp., one of the top U.S. chicken producers, has become the first company sentenced to pay a criminal fine as part of an ongoing antitrust investigation into the industry by the Justice Department.

The JBS SA-owned firm pleaded guilty to conspiring with rivals to illegally prop up prices between 2012 and 2017, and will pay $108 million, the Justice Department said Tuesday. That adds to hundreds of millions of dollars in civil settlements that the chicken industry has already made.

FILE - In this Dec. 2, 2008 file photo, a statue of Pilgrim's Pride founder Lonnie "Bo" Pilgrim is displayed outside the distribution center near Pittsburg, Texas.

The fines and payments are likely not over, a sign that the extreme consolidation that’s occurred in the chicken industry over past decades is starting to exact a cost. The investigation into chicken antitrust is ongoing, the Justice Department said, and 10 individuals at major chicken producers have previously been charged.

The “guilty plea demonstrates our unwavering commitment to prosecuting companies that violate the nation’s antitrust laws, especially when it involves something as central to everyday life as the food we eat,” said Richard Powers, acting assistant attorney general of the DOJ’s antitrust division.

The chicken industry has also been embroiled in a class action lawsuit for years. Major buyers including Chick-Fil-A and Target Corp. have accused poultry companies of fixing prices. Pilgrim’s earlier this year said it would pay $75 million to settle with plaintiffs, while Tyson Foods Inc., America’s biggest meatmaker, said it would pay $221.5 million.

Pilgrim’s said the plea marks the end of the government’s investigation into the company.

The government “will bring no further charges against Pilgrim’s in this matter, provided the company complies with the terms and provisions of the agreement,” said Cameron Bruett, a spokesman for Pilgrim’s.