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Lawsuit to end long-running conspiracy to suppress worker pay at poultry processing plants

Christian Fernsby |
The Department of Justice filed a civil antitrust lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland against a data consulting firm and its president, as well as three poultry processors, to end a long-running conspiracy to exchange information about wages and benefits for poultry processing plant workers and collaborate with their competitors on compensation decisions in violation of the Sherman Act.

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The lawsuit also alleges that two of the poultry processors violated the Packers and Stockyards Act by engaging in deceptive practices associated with the “tournament system,” which pits chicken growers against each other to determine their compensation.

At the same time, the department filed proposed consent decrees with Defendants Webber, Meng, Sahl and Company (WMS) and its President, G. Jonathan Meng, as well as Cargill Inc., Cargill Meat Solutions Corporation, Sanderson Farms Inc. and Wayne Farms LLC.

If approved by the court, the proposed consent decree with data consulting firm WMS would ban WMS from providing surveys or any other services that facilitate the sharing of competitively sensitive information in any industry. Jonathan Meng, WMS’s President, is also subject to the terms of the consent decree in his individual capacity.

The proposed consent decree with defendant poultry processors Cargill, Sanderson Farms and Wayne Farms would prohibit them from sharing competitively sensitive information about poultry processing plant workers’ compensation.

It would also:

• Impose on the poultry processors a court-appointed compliance monitor who, for the next decade, will ensure their compliance with the terms of the proposed decree;

• Grant the court-appointed monitor broad authority to ensure their compliance with all federal antitrust laws as they relate to their poultry processing facilities, workers at their poultry processing plants, chicken growers, integrated poultry feed, hatcheries, transportation of poultry and poultry products, and the sale of poultry and submit regular reports on the processors’ antitrust compliance;

• Permit the Antitrust Division to inspect the processors’ facilities and interview their employees to ensure compliance with the consent decree; and

• Require the companies to commit to pay $84.8 million, collectively, in restitution for poultry processing plant workers who were harmed by the information exchange conspiracy.

These terms would expire 10 years after the consent decree is approved by the court.

Additionally, the proposed consent decree with Sanderson Farms and Wayne Farms would resolve alleged violations of the Packers and Stockyards Act, which prohibits, among other things, deceptive practices in poultry markets.

As alleged in the complaint, poultry processors use a “tournament system” to adjust a chicken grower’s “base payment” based on how well the grower performs relative to other growers.

The poultry processors, however, control nearly all the key inputs, including the chicks delivered to the growers and their poultry feed, that often determine a grower’s success. In allocating this financial risk to their chicken growers, Sanderson Farms and Wayne Farms failed to provide information that would have allowed their growers to evaluate and manage their financial risk.

The proposed consent decree would:

• Prevent Sanderson Farms and Wayne Farms from penalizing chicken growers by reducing their base payments as a result of relative performance, while still allowing for incentive, bonus and other types of payments to growers;

• Require expanded information disclosures in grower contracts, consistent with proposed transparency rules set out by the USDA; and

• Prohibit retaliation against growers who raise antitrust concerns with the court-appointed compliance monitor or the government.

This lawsuit is part of a broader investigation into anticompetitive labor market abuses in the poultry processing industry.

Anyone with information about poultry industry collusion, competitors sharing non-public compensation information, anticompetitive conduct violations against workers or any other violations of the antitrust laws is encouraged to contact the Antitrust Division’s Citizen Complaint Center.


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