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Be on the Lookout for Anything that ‘Smells Fishy’

State and federal antitrust enforcers investigate various kinds of anticompetitive conduct that impede free and fair competition, and disadvantage consumers. One type of anticompetitive conduct is price-fixing, which occurs when two or more competing businesses conspire to raise, lower, or maintain the prices of goods or services at certain price points. Price-fixing, as a consequence, reduces the incentive for businesses to lower their prices or improve quality to attract prospective consumers, often resulting in consumers having to pay higher prices or tolerate deficient goods or inadequate services.
In September of 2019, the StarKist Company (“StarKist”) was sentenced by a federal court to pay a $100 million criminal fine, which was the highest possible corporate fine that could be levied for violating the antitrust laws, and serve a 13-month term of probation for its role in participating in a conspiracy to fix the prices of canned tuna. According to court documents, StarKist conspired with its competitors, Bumble Bee Foods, LLC (“Bumble Bee”) and Chicken of the Sea, to inflate the prices consumers had to pay for canned tuna from as early as November of 2011 to December of 2013.
Earlier, Bumble Bee was sentenced in federal court to pay a $25 million criminal fine for its participation in the price-fixing conspiracy in the canned tuna market. Conversely, Chicken of the Sea avoided criminal charges because it had served as a whistleblower and alerted antitrust enforcers to the unscrupulous behavior.
You may be wondering what public purchasers (who probably do not purchase a lot of tuna) can learn from this story. The StarKist story serves as a reminder that any purchase—whether or not it is made through a competitive bidding process—can be impacted by vendor collusion. Price-fixing is just as harmful to purchasers as bid-rigging. So be on the lookout, and report anything that smells fishy.
If you suspect unscrupulous behavior like this, or have questions about how to recognize anticompetitive activity, please call the Antitrust Section of the Ohio Attorney General’s Office at 614-466-4328.