Tuna price-fixing case claims former StarKist exec

SAN FRANCISCO - A former StarKist tuna company executive has pleaded guilty in federal court to price-fixing packaged seafood sold in the U.S.

Stephen Hodge, a former senior vice president for sales at StarKist, entered his plea Wednesday in federal court in San Francisco, the U.S. Justice Department said in a statement. He is scheduled to be sentenced in March.

Hodge met with rival industry executives to "fix, raise and maintain the prices" of packaged seafood such as canned tuna, the department said.

Hodge's lawyer, Steven Kowal, did not immediately return a call seeking comment Thursday.

The criminal charge filed on May 30 reflects broader concerns about competition within the canned tuna industry, federal prosecutors said. The U.S. government began investigating price fixing of canned tuna between StarKist, Bumble Bee Foods and Chicken of the Sea more than two years ago.

In May, industry giant Bumble Bee Foods agreed to pay a $25 million fine after pleading guilty to price fixing. Two of its executives also pleaded guilty for their participation in the conspiracy, the department said.

Bumble Bee general counsel Jill Irvin has said the company hired a chief compliance officer last fall and recently reformed its guidelines and policies.

Bumble Bee has cooperated with federal prosecutors, Irvin said.

The FBI's San Francisco office is leading the investigation.