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US prosecutors have reeled in a big fish in their probe of price-fixing in the packaged seafood industry, after Bumble Bee — the US-headquartered seafood company owned by UK private-equity firm Lion Capital — agreed on Monday to plead guilty and pay a fine of at least $25m.

The fine could go as high as $81.5m if Bumble Bee is sold subject to certain terms and conditions, the US Department of Justice said.

As part of the plea agreement, Bumble Bee will cooperate with the office’s ongoing probe into claims of a conspiracy to fix the price of shelf-stable tuna, such as canned and pouched products, which started as early as 2011 and ran at least through the end of 2013, the DOJ said.

It is the third charge filed stemming from the investigation and the first against a corporate defendant, according to acting assistant attorney general Andrew Finch from the office’s antitrust division. Two Bumble Bee executives had previously pleaded guilty to individual charges. Mr Finch added:

“The division, along with our law enforcement colleagues, will continue to hold these companies and their executives accountable for conduct that targeted a staple in American households.”

Bumble Bee general counsel Jill Irvin said in a statement:

“The Company has taken this matter very seriously and fully cooperated with the DOJ from the start of the investigation. We have established strong guidelines and new internal policies for our path forward, which is being overseen by a chief compliance officer that we hired last fall. We accept full responsibility for needing to earn back any lost trust in our Company and will do so by acting with integrity and transparency in every way we operate our business.”

Lion Capital, which specialises in consumer brands, had struck a deal in 2014 to sell Bumble Bee to Thai Union Group Public Company Limited — which owns the Chicken of the Sea tuna brand — but the acquisition was called off the following year after the parties concluded that they were unlikely to receive antitrust clearance from US regulators.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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