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By Tom Polansek
CHICAGO (Reuters) - The U.S. government has indicted six more chicken-industry executives over alleged price-fixing, broadening antitrust prosecutions in its probe of the $65 billion poultry sector.
In June, the Justice Department indicted Pilgrim's Pride Chief Executive Jayson Penn and three others in its first charges in the criminal probe involving broiler birds, which account for most U.S. chicken.
Court documents filed on Tuesday show former Pilgrim's Pride CEO William Lovette has also been indicted. Lovette could not be reached for comment on Wednesday, and a company spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.
The indictments come after grocers, retailers and consumers filed a lawsuit accusing Pilgrim's Pride, Tyson Foods and other poultry processors of conspiring to inflate prices for broiler chickens.
"Executives who choose collusion over competition will be held to account for schemes that cheat consumers and corrupt our competitive markets," Makan Delrahim, chief of the Justice Department's Antitrust Division, said in a statement on Wednesday.
Penn, who succeeded Lovette as CEO in 2019, has pleaded not guilty.
Pilgrim's Pride, mostly owned by Brazil-based meatpacker JBS SA, last month said Penn left the company and was replaced as CEO by Chief Financial Officer Fabio Sandri.
The court documents allege industry executives conspired to fix chicken prices from 2012 through 2019.
Also indicted was sales executive Timothy Mulrenin.
Mulrenin, who was hired by Perdue Farms in 2018, worked at Tyson Foods at the time of the allegations outlined against him in court documents, according to the filing and his LinkedIn page. He did not immediately respond to a message sent through LinkedIn.
Perdue declined to comment.
Tyson in June said it was cooperating with the Justice Department's investigation under a corporate leniency program that could protect the company from criminal prosecution.
The latest indictment does not affect Tyson's status in its leniency application, spokesman Gary Mickelson said.
(Reporting by Tom Polansek in Chicago and Diane Bartz and Susan Heavey in Washington; Editing by David Gregorio and Matthew Lewis)