A former StarKist executive has pleaded guilty to a charge of fixing the prices of tinned seafood with officials from other US tuna companies, in the latest development in a scandal which has engulfed the country's three biggest tuna businesses.

Stephen Hodge, a former senior vice president of sales at StarKist, yesterday (28 June) pleaded guilty to a one-count criminal information that was filed on 30 May in federal court in San Francisco, the US Department of Justice (DoJ) said in a statement.

A criminal information is a type of charging document prosecutors often use in connection with defendants who are negotiating plea deals. Hodge, who has agreed to pay a fine and cooperate with the investigation by the department's antitrust division, will be sentenced by the court at a later date. However, the one count of price-fixing he is charged with carries a maximum penalty of a ten-year prison term followed by a three-year supervised release and a fine of USD 1 million (EUR 894,000). 

Hodge is the third executive to be charged by the DoJ with price fixing, after Ken Worsham and Walter Scott Cameron, both longtime Bumble Bee Foods sales executives pleaded guilty in December 2016. Bumble Bee agreed in May to plead guilty to one count of fixing the prices of canned tuna and to pay a criminal fine of $25 million.

The DoJ said Hodge met with officials from other canned seafood companies, which were not named, "to fix, raise and maintain the prices" of canned seafood.

The US canned tuna market has long been dominated by three companies, Thai Union Group's Chicken of the Sea, Bumble Bee and StarKist.

"With today's plea, the anti-trust division continues to send a strong signal that senior executives will be held accountable for their actions," said Andrew Finch, the acting attorney general of the DoJ's anti-trust division. "The division, along with our law enforcement colleagues, will continue to investigate price fixing among packaged seafood companies and the executives who worked at those companies."

Hodge's name also appears on a list of 56 key industry players alleged to have taken part in the conspiracy in a civil lawsuit from retailer Wal-Mart Stores.

StarKist is a subsidiary of the Dongwon Group of South Korea.