Lawsuit: Meatpackers conspired to raise pork prices

A class-action lawsuit claims that Austin-based Hormel and eight other big food companies have conspired since 2009 to raise pork prices and overcharge consumers nationwide.

The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for Minnesota, charges that Hormel, Tyson and other meatpackers jointly limited production to boost prices.

The Seattle-based law firm that filed the lawsuit said that consumers have likely been overcharged by hundreds of millions of dollars, perhaps billions.

"We've been paying more for that pound of bacon or slab of ham," said Steve Berman, managing partner at the Hagens Berman law firm.

The brands involved included Ball Park Franks, Hillshire Farm, Hormel, Jennie-O, Jimmy Dean, SaraLee, Span and Tyson.

Hormel said the charges are not true. In a statement, the company said it is "confident that any allegations such as these are completely without merit," adding that it will vigorously defend itself.

Berman said that if the lawsuit is successful, his firm could identify consumers eligible for compensation by asking retailers to examine customer transaction records. "Then we will eventually mail checks out to people," he said.

He said that the lawsuit is worthwhile "even if ultimately it's a $30 or $40 check for a household, which seems small."

"The idea of a class action is that ($30 or $40) is too small for any one family to do anything about," Berman said. "But the aggregate number of overcharges could be in the billions of dollars. So, it's the big picture recovery that's important to look at."

Hog prices in Iowa and Minnesota spiked in 2008, as exports rose to China for the Beijing Olympics. They also jumped sharply in 2014, when a disease outbreak killed many hogs.

As of 2013, Americans consumed about 47 pounds of pork per year per person. Per capita spending on pork was $170.65, according to the USDA and Livestock Marketing Information Center.

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