GREELEY, COLO. – Pilgrim’s Pride Corp. announced June 14 that Jayson Penn, president and chief executive officer, is taking a paid leave of absence, effective immediately. In early June, a federal grand jury in the US District Court in Denver indicted Mr. Penn and three other poultry company executives for their alleged role in a conspiracy to fix prices for broiler chickens, according to the US Department of Justice (DOJ). During his leave, the company said Mr. Penn will be focusing on his defense to the indictment, “to which he has pleaded not guilty.”

In addition to Mr. Penn, three other poultry executives were named in the indictment: Roger Austin, vice president of fresh foodservice at Pilgrim’s; Mikell Fries, president of Claxton Poultry; and Scott Brady, vice president of national accounts at Claxton Poultry. The indictment states the four executives conspired to fix prices and rig bids for broiler chickens across the United States from at least as early as 2012 until at least early 2017.

The DOJ said Mr. Penn, Mr. Austin, Mr. Fries and Mr. Brady are the first to be charged in an ongoing criminal investigation into price fixing and bid rigging involving broiler chickens.

The court document states that the four executives “…together with co-conspirators known and unknown to the Grand Jury, entered into and engaged in a continuing combination and conspiracy to suppress and eliminate competition by rigging bids and fixing prices and other price-related terms for broiler chicken products sold in the United States.”

The indictment said the conspiracy consisted of a continuing agreement to “...rig bids and to fix, maintain, stabilize, and raise prices and other price-related terms for broiler chicken products sold in the United States.”

The Pilgrim’s Board of Directors has appointed Fabio Sandri, chief financial officer, as interim president and CEO. Mr. Sandri joined Pilgrim’s as CFO in June 2011.

“Pilgrim’s operates with the highest standards of integrity and is committed to free and open competition that benefits both customers and consumers,” said Gilberto Tomazoni, chairman of Pilgrim’s board of directors. “The board takes the recent allegations very seriously and believes it is in the best interests of both Jayson and the company that he is given the opportunity to focus on his legal defense during this time. Jayson has built a strong leadership team at Pilgrim’s. The board has complete confidence in the ability of Fabio and the team to continue to implement Pilgrim’s strategy and successfully run day-to-day operations.”

Pilgrim’s Pride Corp. is a unit of São Paulo, Brazil-based JBS SA.