Days after Mississippi’s largest company – Laurel-based poultry processor Sanderson Farms – finalized its $4.5-billion sale to an out-of-state competitor, it agreed to pay its part of millions of dollars in restitution to workers for its alleged role in a scheme to suppress wages.
The U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit this week that outlined decades of communications and data sharing between the poultry industry’s largest players, including Sanderson and its new owner, accusing the companies of working together to keep wages and benefits from being competitive.
“Through a brazen scheme to exchange wage and benefit information, these poultry processors stifled competition and harmed a generation of plant workers who face demanding and sometimes dangerous conditions to earn a living,” Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Doha Mekki of the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division said in a statement.
Cargill Inc., Sanderson Farms Inc., and Wayne Farms signed an agreement with the Justice Department to pay $84.8 million in restitution to workers to resolve the lawsuit.
Cargill and Continental Grain Co. closed the acquisition of Sanderson Farms on Friday, almost a full year after announcing its plans. Continental owns Wayne Farms. The new corporate entity combines Sanderson – the third largest chicken production company in the country – with Wayne – the sixth largest – to create Wayne-Sanderson Farms.
“While we are pleased to have resolved this matter and put it behind us, both legacy companies are proud of their track record with their employees and growers and the agreement with DOJ evidences our commitment to continue to be an industry leader in those areas,” Wayne-Sanderson Farms said in a statement.
Cargill said in a statement it denies any wrongdoing but has been cooperative. The antitrust probe slowed the company’s plans to purchase Sanderson, which was first announced in August 2021.
The settlement, which still has to be approved by the court, also calls for a compliance monitor who will ensure the poultry companies are following regulations related to both processing facilities and with chicken growers.
The lawsuit says Sanderson and Wayne were both in violation of a protection act for the farms that hatch and grow chickens for slaughter. The poultry processors used a “tournament system” that adjusted payouts based on the quality of their brood compared to others, according to the lawsuit. The processors, however, are the ones supplying the chicks and feed.
DOJ alleged the poultry companies failed to provide the information the chicken growers needed to understand the inherent financial risks. Propublica outlined those types of risks in a 2019 investigation that showed how another poultry processor – Koch Foods – took advantage of Black Mississippi farmers to grow chickens, leaving them saddled with debt.
The agreement prevents Sanderson-Wayne from penalizing chicken growers by reducing base pay while still allowing for incentives and other bonuses. It requires expanded disclosures and transparency in contracts and prohibits retaliation against growers who raise antitrust concerns.
The new Sanderson-Wayne Farm is based in Oakwood, Georgia, with Clint Rivers, the CEO of Wayne Farms, as its head. The future of Sanderson’s corporate offices in Laurel is unclear.
“As we proceed with the integration of Wayne-Sanderson Farms, we look forward to investing in our communities, employees and grower partners to ensure there continues to be a strong and competitive American food supply,” the new company said in a statement.
Under its new ownership, Sanderson is no longer publicly traded. D.R. Sanderson founded the business in 1947 as a feed and seed store. For 75 years, it was family owned and based out of Laurel. Today, it spans more than 17,000 employees.
“It has been an incredible privilege to lead the Sanderson Farms team over the last 33 years and to continue my family’s legacy by helping to nourish families across the country,” former CEO Joe F. Sanderson, Jr. said in a statement. “I am proud of all we have achieved together, and I am confident that the fairness, honesty and integrity that has been synonymous with the Sanderson Farms name will carry on with Wayne-Sanderson Farms.”