With the loss of the jury trial, Biden’s plan to address competition in the meat industry appeared to falter. Still, criminal trials were only part of the strategy. The Justice Department could still bring civil cases against poultry processors. Less than three weeks after the bid-rigging trial ended in defeat, the department’s Antitrust Division sued the poultry processors again. This civil suit focused on another type of illegal anticompetitive behavior: wage suppression.
Each year, usually in May, representatives of about 20 poultry processing companies, which together employed 90 percent of the industry’s workers (a total of about 240,000 in 2020), flew to a secret meeting. They called themselves the Poultry Industry Survey Group. In 2000, they hired a small Pennsylvania-based consulting firm (Weber, Meng, Sahl and Company) to conduct a detailed annual survey of each company’s current and future wage rates. The company’s president, Jonathan Meng, later said in a court statement that he would give a PowerPoint presentation with general conclusions, then leave and the executives would meet behind closed doors, sometimes for another full day. Each company paid Meng $995 for the service, a fee that rose to $1,100 in 2018.
Over the years, according to Meng, she became concerned that her presence was intended to cover up illegal and anti-competitive behavior among group members; At times he warned conference organizers that they were violating antitrust laws. But he didn’t leave the job. In 2017, fearing legal action, members of the group dubbed him their “Antitrust Guidonte,” using a military term for a flag that flies when a commander is present, and asked him to make sure no one broke the law in the conference. Despite the caution, corporate lawyers for some participants forced them to abandon the process. Meng’s 2019 presentation made an attempt at dark humor. Paraphrasing Shakespeare on a slide listing firms that had recently exited, he wrote: “The first thing we must do is kill all the lawyers.”
Later that year, following a private investigation, attorneys filed a class-action lawsuit, Jien, et al. v. Perdue Farms, Inc., et al., against Meng’s company and members of the Poultry Industry Survey Group, including all but one of the companies involved in the separate price-fixing case, on behalf of employees who claimed that The conferences amounted to a conspiracy to suppress wages. As part of a settlement, Meng described his role in the conferences in great detail in the court statement. In the document, Meng maintains his innocence and portrays his company as an “unwitting tool” of processor misconduct. (He could not be reached for comment for this article.)
Evidently, the Justice Department was not convinced that Meng’s company was an “unwitting tool,” because it named him as a defendant in a civil lawsuit filed in July 2022 against Cargill, Sanderson Farms and Wayne Farms. (The complaint also referenced 18 anonymous accomplices of poultry processors.) Relying largely on Meng’s testimony in court, the government claimed that processors “artificially suppressed compensation” and “deprived a generation of poultry processing plant workers of a fair wage.” set in a free and competitive labor market.”