U.S. indicts Pilgrim’s Pride Corp CEO for alleged chicken price-fixing

FILE PHOTO: Chickens are retrieved from an Iowa farm by an animal rights group to avoid them being gassed as egg demand falls due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak near Fort Dodge, Iowa, U.S., May 16, 2020. Animal Place/Handout via REUTERS

WASHINGTON/CHICAGO (Reuters) – The chief executive of Pilgrim’s Pride Corp, a major U.S. poultry company, was indicted along with three other current and former industry executives on charges of seeking to fix the price of chickens, the Justice Department said on Wednesday.

Pilgrim’s Pride shares fell 14% around midday.

A grand jury in Denver indicted Jayson Penn, the president and CEO of Pilgrim’s Pride (PPC.O), which is mostly owned by JBS USA Inc, as well as a former executive at the Colorado-based chicken supplier, the Justice Department said in a statement. Two executives from a Georgia chicken producer were also indicted.

“Executives who cheat American consumers, restaurateurs, and grocers, and compromise the integrity of our food supply, will be held responsible for their actions,” said Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim, head of the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division.

Pilgrim’s Pride did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

According to the indictment, the conspiracy ran from 2012 until at least early 2017, the department said.

In addition to Penn, the indicted executives were Roger Austin, a former Pilgrim vice president, as well as the president of Claxton Poultry, Mikell Fries, and Scott Brady, a vice president at Claxton.

A spokesman for Claxton declined immediate comment, and a lawyer for the company could not immediately be reached. The individuals indicted also could not immediately be reached.

The charges are the first in a criminal probe of price-fixing and bid-rigging involving broiler chickens.

Reporting by Susan Heavey, Tom Polansek and Diane Bartz; Editing by Chris Reese and Tom Brown