Tuna cans

A can of Chicken of the Sea tuna is on sale at Safeway this week for 69 cents. The upcoming Kroger ad has Bumble Bee on sale, two for a dollar. And at H-E-B, you can get a can of StarKist for free when you buy a can of Bush’s baked beans.

Pretty decent deals. But all of the above supermarkets say you’ve been overpaying for tuna for years – and they’re suing the trio of tuna companies to hold them accountable.

Kroger, Albertsons (the owner of Safeway), H-E-B and Hy-Vee have become the latest and largest grocery chains to file suit against the “big three” tuna brands – Bumble Bee, Chicken of the Sea and StarKist. In the lawsuit, filed on Friday, the retailers claim the companies colluded to fix prices on canned tuna, keeping prices artificially high even as demand fell, for at least five years and possibly longer.

The retailers join Winn-Dixie and Giant Eagle, both of which sued late last year, and a slew of independent grocers, wholesalers, food suppliers, restaurateurs and dozens of other companies that have filed federal antitrust complaints over the past six months.

From roughly 2010 through 2015, the plaintiffs in this latest lawsuit allege, the defendants’ pricing of canned tuna “is explainable only through conspiratorial action.” During that time, “there was a large increase in the supply of canning-grade tuna coupled with decreasing U.S. demand for canned tuna,” the complaint continues. “This should have caused U.S. canned tuna prices to decline precipitously. But instead, these prices increased (significantly).”

The plaintiffs claim the tuna companies had “direct meetings and communications” with each other about setting prices charged to retailers, distributors and other customers, in order to keep tuna prices – and their profits – from plummeting. In particular, the retailers allege that a joint marketing campaign called “Tuna the Wonderfish” that the tuna companies launched several years ago, was merely “cover to conceal their exchange of confidential information in furtherance of the conspiracy.”

All of the many lawsuits stem from a U.S. Department of Justice investigation launched last summer, after the owner of Chicken of the Sea announced its intended purchase of Bumble Bee. The taint of a federal antitrust probe, together with the piling on of lawsuits, prompted the companies to abandon the proposed deal late last year.

But their troubles are far from over.

While the tuna companies have not issued any formal responses to the lawsuits in court, they have in the past claimed that a growing need to import foreign tuna, together with rising demand abroad, are to blame for the higher prices. That’s even as more health-conscious Americans have increasingly turned away from canned tuna in recent years, which the many plaintiffs say should have driven prices down instead of sending them up.

So what if the grocery stores win, and prove their case that you’ve been spending too much for tuna all these years? Are they going to pass along the money they’re awarded, in the form of sale-of-the-century tuna promotions? Unlikely. But if you want some compensation for the overpriced tuna you’ve been buying, there’s hope. A number of consumers have filed their own potential class-action lawsuits against the companies, that you may eventually be able to join.

An unrelated class-action suit against StarKist was recently settled, in which the plaintiffs complained that StarKist was underfilling certain five-ounce canned tuna products. Consumers who filed claims (the deadline has since passed) were entitled to either a cash payment of $25, or $50 in StarKist coupons.

$50 in coupons would get you a pretty nice stockpile of 69-cent cans of tuna. So if the current cases ultimately end with a similar payout, it would appear that tuna prices are poised to get a whole lot better.

Image sources: davidmulder61 / Keen Report – News and Opinion / StarKist

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