Five chicken industry executives were found not guilty of conspiring to fix prices from 2012 to 2019, a defeat for prosecutors that came after two mistrials and a major setback for the Biden administration’s attempts to police rising meat costs.
Jurors on Thursday acquitted former
Criminal trials of industry executives are unusual and they came as soaring meat prices are adding fuel to rising inflation. Each man faced the possibility of prison sentences and million-dollar fines if convicted.
The Justice Department had hoped for success in the third trial after narrowing the case from 10 individuals to five, and pushed ahead even after US District Judge
The judge summoned
The result calls into question the government’s ability to win convictions in two other chicken price-fixing cases pending in Denver.
‘Not Be Deterred’
“Although we are disappointed in the verdict, we will continue to vigorously enforce the antitrust laws, especially when it comes to price-fixing schemes that affect core staples,” the Justice Department said in a statement. “We will not be deterred from continuing to vigilantly pursue cases to protect the American people and our markets.”
A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to answer whether the government intends to continue pursuing charges in the two other price-fixing cases.
“This case should never have been brought,” said
“Mr. Fries and the other defendants have maintained their innocence from day one, and after three trials, they have been vindicated,” said his lawyer, Rick Kornfeld.
After the second trial, prosecutors dropped charges against Timothy Mulrenin, a
The series of criminal trials was the first after a years-long federal investigation that targeted the biggest producers in the $95 billion chicken market. Tyson, the biggest US chicken producer, said in 2020 it was cooperating in the federal probe, taking advantage of a government policy to grant leniency to companies that are the first to disclose illegal price-fixing.
Each defendant was charged with a single count of conspiracy to restrain trade, which carries a maximum of 10 years in prison.
Jurors in all three trials heard from the government’s star witness, Robert Bryant, a longtime Pilgrim’s Pride employee. Bryant testified about an industry-wide agreement to share price and bid information to inflate profits or limit losses, depending on market conditions.
Bryant, who testified under a grant of immunity from prosecution, admitted on cross-examination that he had lied to the FBI “multiple times” on matters unrelated to the price-fixing probe. The subject of Bryant’s lies wasn’t made public.
Greeley, Colorado-based Pilgrim’s Pride, a unit of Brazilian food giant
In addition to the ten defendants cleared of charges in the case before Judge Brimmer, US prosecutors have charged four individuals and two companies, Claxton Poultry and Koch Foods, in related price-fixing cases that are moving toward trial, also in Denver. The defendants have all pleaded not guilty.
(Updates with Justice Department declining comment on additional cases)
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