Chicken executives found not guilty of price fixing

Executives from Pilgrim’s Pride and Claxton Poultry were found not guilty by a federal jury in Colorado of conspiring to drive up broiler chicken product prices, Law360 reported. The five executives include former Pilgrim’s Pride CEOs William Lovette and Jayson Penn, and former vice president Roger Austin; and current Claxton Poultry CEO Mikell Fries and Vice President Scott Brady.

The case was part of a years-long investigation by the Justice Department of alleged price-fixing among poultry companies, which began in 2016 targeting 14 executives. It went to trial twice before, and both times resulted in mistrials due to deadlocked juries.

The DOJ announced in April that it would pursue a third trial against five of the executives, a move that drew skepticism among some in the legal community and even the judge himself. Lawyers for the Pilgrim’s Pride and Claxton executives filed a motion to dismiss the charges, calling them “unconstitutional.”

The department was betting that streamlining a third trial with only five executives would help a jury come to a guilty verdict. “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 department said in a statement to Bloomberg.

Targeting executives in cases like this is not without precedent. Four Pilgrim’s Pride executives, and Koch Foods, were criminally charged with a conspiracy to drive up chicken prices by a federal jury in 2021.

Jeffrey Udell, a former federal prosecutor and partner at Walden Macht & Haran LLP, said that while the government did not have a strong case in this instance, it does not speak to the potential outcome of cases with more robust evidence. 

“The jury’s relatively swift exoneration of the executives, especially after two prior juries were unable to reach guilty verdicts, speaks volumes about the strength of the government’s evidence in this case,” Udell said. “I would not, however, draw any broader conclusions about the government’s ability more generally to hold executives or employees accountable for corporate wrongdoing where there is evidence of personal culpability.”

Despite the not guilty verdict in this case, lawsuits and scrutiny from the Biden administration and lawmakers around the meat industry are only continuing. And price-fixing allegations continue to draw legal and monetary consequences for many Big Meat companies. This week, Smithfield settled for $42 million in a pork price-fixing suit filed by restaurants and caterers.