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ConAgra, Hormel Settle Lawsuit Over Alleged Fixing of Catfish Prices

January 1, 1996

SEATTLE (AP) _ Food industry giants ConAgra Inc. and Hormel Foods Corp. have agreed to pay $21.1 million to settle a lawsuit over alleged price-fixing in the catfish market, an attorney said Monday.

The class-action suit, filed in federal court, contended seven companies fixed catfish prices over a 10-year period, said attorney Lynn L. Sarko, who represented Seattle-based Randall Trout Distributors in a complaint joined by fish wholesalers across the country.

Omaha, Neb.-based ConAgra agreed to pay $13.6 million and Austin, Minn.-based Hormel will pay $7.5 million to settle the matter, he said.

The companies admitted no wrongdoing under the settlement reached last week. The case had been scheduled to go to trial this month in Jackson, Miss.

Company officials did not immediately return phone calls seeking comment on New Year’s Day.

Delta Pride Catfish Inc., an Indianola, Miss.-based fish farm cooperative, also agreed to settle the suit out of court, but the payment involved in that deal hasn’t been disclosed, Sarko said in a telephone interview.

Four smaller defendants _ including Pride of the Pond of Mississippi and Southern Pride of Alabama _ had already settled the suit with payments totaling $500,000.

The allegations stemmed from a 1992 grand jury investigation. Randall, a family-owned fish distributor, was one of several companies that noticed wholesale prices for catfish remained steady as demand boomed, making catfish a $400 million a year industry.

“Rather than competing with each other, the plaintiffs alleged, the fish processors made a cozy deal to keep all the profit to themselves,″ Sarko said.

Artificially maintained prices put distributors in a tough spot, he said.

``The effect of the antitrust conspiracy was to allow the defendant processors to keep all the profits in this growing industry, thereby leaving the fish distributors with paper-thin margins,″ Sarko said.

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