JBS pays $20 million settlement for pork price-fixing

JBS has agreed to pay $20 million to settle a consumer lawsuit that accused the giant meat producer of collaborating with other meat companies to drive up the price of pork.

The most recent settlement in the meat industry is likely to reinforce concerns expressed by the White House, members of Congress and trade groups about the impact of the lack of competition in the industry on prices.

A federal judge in Minnesota last week approved the settlement of the price-fixing lawsuit. But the judge also ruled that nearly $7 million of the settlement will go to plaintiffs’ attorneys for their work in the case.

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The pig case is one of many price-fixing lawsuits coming through the courts. Meat producers have also been accused of inflating beef and chicken prices, and several multimillion-dollar settlements have been announced in those cases.

Previously, JBS agreed to pay restaurants and caterers $12.75 million as part of another settlement in this pork lawsuit, and Smithfield Foods agreed to pay two different groups of pork buyers $83 million and $42 million in two different settlements in the case.

Despite the settlements, meat companies have defended their pricing policies.

A photo of JBS USA Pork Plant in Worthington, Minnesota, taken on April 18, 2020. (Aaron Lavinsky/Star Tribune)

Officials at the Brazilian company’s US headquarters in Greeley, Colorado, did not immediately respond to questions about the latest settlement Monday, but JBS did not admit wrongdoing as part of the deal.

The plaintiffs’ lead attorneys said it’s not clear how much individual consumers who bought pork could receive between 2009 and last year, in part because money from additional settlements can be added to the fund before any payments are sent. More details about the settlement are available online.

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The hog case remains pending against other major producers, including Hormel, Tyson Foods and the Agri Stats database company that they allegedly used to share confidential information about price, capacity and demand. JBS agreed to cooperate in the case against those other companies as part of the settlement.

The lawsuit accuses the major meat processors, which together control more than 70% of pork production nationwide, of collaborating to limit the supply of pigs and drive up prices.

The White House, several agricultural trade groups and a number of prominent members of Congress have all questioned the industry’s pricing practices, although meat producers argue that supply and demand factors, not anti-competitive behavior, drive prices up.

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The Justice Department has been investigating allegations of price-fixing in the industry since at least 2020, but has not provided any updates on the investigation.

The Biden administration has announced several efforts to increase competition in the meat industry to help lower prices, including a $1 billion program to help establish and expand independent slaughterhouses. And the White House has amended its administrative rules to make it easier for farmers and ranchers to report concerns or denounce anticompetitive behavior.

The judge who approved the settlement last Wednesday said awarding the attorneys involved 33% of the proceeds, as he did here, was in line with other similar class action lawsuits.