Pilgrim's Pride strikes plea deal over U.S. chicken price-fixing charges

(Reuters) - U.S. poultry company Pilgrim's Pride Corp PPC.O said on Wednesday it will pay a $110.5 million fine after striking a plea deal with the Justice Department over price-fixing charges on chicken products.

FILE PHOTO: Pieces of chicken lie on a grill in Los Angeles, California April 10, 2014. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

The guilty plea makes Pilgrim's Pride, mostly owned by Brazilian meatpacker JBS SA JBSS3.SA, the first U.S. chicken company to reach an agreement with the government over allegations that industry executives conspired to increase chicken prices from 2012 through 2019.

Pilgrim’s Pride agreed to plead guilty to one count of conspiracy to limit competition in chicken product sales, according to a Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) filing. A company statement said the agreement covered three chicken contracts with one U.S. customer.

As part of the deal, the department’s Antitrust Division will not bring more charges against Pilgrim’s Pride in the case, the statement said. Shares jumped 6.1% to $16.63 on Wednesday afternoon.

“We are encouraged that today’s agreement concludes the Antitrust Division’s investigation into Pilgrim’s,” Chief Executive Officer Fabio Sandri said.

The Antitrust Division confirmed it reached a plea agreement with Pilgrim’s Pride and declined further comment until the deal is filed. It is subject to the approval of the U.S. District Court of Colorado.

The former CEO of Pilgrim’s Pride, Jayson Penn, was indicted in June, along with other current and former industry executives, on charges of seeking to fix chicken meat prices. Penn has pleaded not guilty.

Last week, the government broadened the probe by indicting more industry executives, including Bill Lovette, who preceded Penn as CEO of Pilgrim’s Pride.

Rival supplier Tyson Foods Inc TSN.N said in June it was cooperating with the department's investigation under a corporate leniency program that could protect the company from criminal prosecution.

Separately, JBS said it will pay a $26.9 million fine after making a deal with the SEC over violations related to Pilgrim’s Pride’s books, and prosecutors said JBS parent J&F Investimentos will pay $256 million after pleading guilty to violating the U.S. Foreign Corruption Practices Act.

Reporting by Rama Venkat in Bengaluru, Tom Polansek in Chicago and Diane Bartz in Washington; Editing by Arun Koyyur and Matthew Lewis