criminal probe@ (Adds details from hearing, background)
CHICAGO/NEW YORK, June 27 (Reuters) - A federal judge on Thursday authorized the U.S. government to intervene in a long-running lawsuit in which customers accused Tyson Foods Inc , Pilgrim's Pride Corp and other poultry processors of conspiring to inflate chicken prices.
U.S. District Judge Thomas Durkin in Chicago granted the government's intervention request after the Department of Justice said it had launched a criminal probe related to price-fixing allegations, which the poultry processors have denied.
"The government's now in the case," Durkin said at a hearing.
Durkin also ordered an immediate three-month halt of parts of the customer litigation. The Justice Department had sought a six-month stay, which would have restricted the ability of parties to collect evidence from each other.
Some customers said before Thursday's hearing that they had no objection to the Justice Department's intervention, but that a six-month stay was too long and would be unfair.
Sanderson Farms Inc and Perdue Farms were also accused of price-fixing by customers, including farms, food distributors, retailers and ordinary consumers. Pilgrim's Pride is owned mostly by Brazilian meat packer JBS SA.
Kraft Heinz Co, Kroger Co, Walmart Inc and food distributor Sysco Corp are among the many plaintiffs that have been involved in the case.
The customer litigation, encompassing more than three dozen lawsuits, began in 2016, when New York's Maplevale Farms and others said processors had conspired as early as 2008 to "fix, raise, maintain, and stabilize" prices for broiler chickens, which account for most chicken meat sold in the United States. (Reporting by Tom Polansek in Chicago and Jonathan Stempel in New York, Additional reporting by Barbara Smith in Chicago; Editing by Tom Brown)