Opinion: Is DOJ throwing Big Poultry on the rotisserie?

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About two years ago Maplevale Farms, Inc filed a civil lawsuit against the nation's largest chicken processors – Tyson Foods, Pilgrim's Pride, Perdue Farms, Koch Foods and Sanderson Farms are all plaintiffs – alleging the companies conspired together between 2008 and 2016 to fix poultry prices.

Maplevale Farms charged in the lawsuit Big Poultry were sharing proprietary company information with one another through the subscription service Agri Stats in order to artificially set poultry prices for suppliers, wholesalers, and retailers.

“…The principal (but not exclusive) method by which defendants implemented and executed their conspiracy was by coordinating their output and limiting production with the intent and expected result of increasing prices of broilers in the United States. In furtherance of their conspiracy, defendants exchanged detailed, competitively sensitive, and closely-guarded non-public information about prices, capacity, sales volume, and demand, including through third party co-conspirator Agri Stats.”

As it turns out Agri Stats is owned by a heavy weight – pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly. Yeah freaking Eli Lilly. Boiled down the lawsuit says Big Poultry was working together to create a monopoly.

Needless to say Tyson Foods and the other plaintiffs were not amused and demanded the district court quash the lawsuit. But Northern District of Illinois Judge Thomas Durkin shocked Big Poultry by denying the motion and sent the case forward for discovery.

It's now been about seven months since Durkin's ruling and who knows what information Maplevale Farm attorneys might have uncovered.

But earlier this year the case has taken another twist of the screw with the involvement of the Department of Justice which has asked Durkin to suspend discovery in the Maplevale lawsuit.

Which begs the question is the DOJ looking into potential criminal charges against Big-Poultry company executives? In its May quarterly filing Tyson Foods revealed Maplevale plaintiffs have been subpoenaed to appear before a DOJ grand jury.

For its part Tyson Foods and its spokesperson Gary Mickelson is keeping a stiff upper beak.

We are aware of the Department of Justice’s request, which does not change our view that there is simply no merit to the allegations that Tyson Foods colluded with competitors. We remain committed to vigorously defending ourselves against these baseless allegations.”

But I say something is afoot.

For the time being, the civil suit is on hold pending DOJ action. It very well could result in the indictment of Big Poultry CEOs.

But given all the political shenanigans of the last two plus years a tiny part of me wonders if DOJ's ultimate objective is to bury the facts to protect Big Poultry interests.

Yeah I know – a conspiracy theory of sorts. But billions of dollars are at stake here. And things are not always as they seem.

About Dave Dickey

Dave Dickey

Dickey spent nearly 30 years at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s NPR member station WILL-AM 580 where he won a dozen Associated Press awards for his reporting. For 13 years, he directed Illinois Public Media’s agriculture programming. His weekly column for the Midwest Center covers agriculture and related issues including politics, government, environment and labor. Email him at dave.dickey@investigatemidwest.org.