By Marty Graham
SAN DIEGO (Reuters) - Three of the largest U.S. sellers of canned tuna have agreed to pay $3.3 million collectively to settle civil claims brought by three California counties over complaints the companies put less fish in their cans than represented on their labels.
StarKist, Chicken of the Sea and Bumble Bee brands of canned tuna contained more liquid and less tuna than stated on their cans, according to a lawsuit and settlement both filed Thursday by district attorneys for Marin, Riverside and San Diego counties.
The companies cooperated fully in an investigation stemming from the complaint and in reaching the settlement, the prosecutors said. The inquiry into complaints of tuna under-filling began in 2010, San Diego County Deputy District Attorney Gina Darvas said.
"The California Department of Food and Agriculture has a division of measurement standards, and they look at short weights, among other things," Darvas said. "Someone had an anecdotal feeling there was less tuna in cans, and they looked into it."
The shortages were found in tuna packed in vegetable broth, prosecutors said. No liability was admitted by the tuna canners in the settlement.
"It's not necessarily intentional," Darvas said. "They get a little sloppy on keeping up with calibrating their weighing equipment, and we occasionally have to provide an incentive that they play by the rules."
Calls for comment to StarKist, Chicken of the Sea and Bumble Bee were not immediately returned on Friday.
The National Fisheries Institute, whose membership includes the three tuna canners, said the problem is the weighing standard used by the federal Food and Drug Administration.
"The dispute centered around the FDA's 55-year-old pressed weight standard. Rather than litigate against an outdated standard, the companies will continue their own efforts with FDA towards establishing a more modern, consistent and reliable standard of measurement that can be easily understood and verified by consumers," the group said in a written statement.
The settlement includes $969,500 to be paid to each county's consumer protection division, $300,000 worth of canned tuna to be donated to California Food Banks, plus investigation costs, Darvas said.
"It would be impossible to identify and compensate everyone who has purchased the cans of tuna that were light," Darvas said, noting that tuna is a staple in most households. "So we found a good alternative that we are very pleased with."
(Editing by Steve Gorman, Cynthia Johnston and Lisa Shumaker)