Jayson Penn, the president and CEO of US poultry giant Pilgrim’s Pride , has been indicted along with three others by the country’s Department of Justice (DoJ) in relation to a chicken price-fixing investigation.

A grand jury in Denver indicted Penn alongside Roger Austin, a former Pilgrim’s vice president, Mikell Fries, the president of Georgia-based chicken supplier Claxton Poultry, and Scott Brady, a vice president at Claxton.

The anti-trust charges are the first in an ongoing criminal investigation into price-fixing and bid-rigging involving broiler birds.

The indictment says a conspiracy to fix chicken prices ran from 2012 until at least early 2017, and cites executives’ text messages and emails.

The investigation follows retailers, consumers and other food companies accusing major US poultry processors of conspiring since 2008 to inflate prices for broiler chickens. The companies accused have denied the allegations.

The DoJ said that, according to the indictment, “from at least as early as 2012 until at least early 2017 the accused conspired to fix prices and rig bids for broiler chickens across the United States”.

Assistant attorney general Makan Delrahim of the Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division, said: “Particularly in times of global crisis, the division remains committed to prosecuting crimes intended to raise the prices Americans pay for food. Executives who cheat American consumers, restaurateurs, and grocers, and compromise the integrity of our food supply, will be held responsible for their actions.”

Peggy Gustafson, inspector general of the Department of Commerce, added: “Rigging bids and fixing prices hurts consumers and undermines our economic system. We are committed to working with our law enforcement partners to root out those who take advantage of the American public’s trust.”

Colorado-based Pilgrim’s Pride, which is majority owned by Brazilian meat behemoth JBS, issued a statement yesterday (3 June) after the indictment was announced.

It said: “Today, Pilgrim’s was informed of an indictment against a current executive and two former Pilgrim’s employees. We take this matter very seriously. The company is committed to high ethical standards, governance, and free and open competition that benefits both customers and consumers.

“Pilgrim’s will continue to fully cooperate with the Department of Justice in their investigation.”

Reuters said Claxton declined to comment when contacted by the news agency.