US-based fresh produce company Chiquita Brands International has said that the US Department of Justice will be looking into the conduct of the company after Chiquita disclosed it had been forced to make "protection" payments to illegal Colombian groups.

The company announced this week that in April 2003, the company's management and audit committee, in consultation with the board of directors, voluntarily disclosed to the Department of Justice that the company's banana producing subsidiary in Colombia had been forced to make "protection" payments to certain groups in that country which have been designated under US law as foreign terrorist organisations.

"The company's sole reason for submitting to these payment demands has been to protect its employees from the risks to their safety if the payments were not made," the company said.

It told the Department of Justice about the payments when management became aware that these groups had been designated as foreign terrorist organisations under a US statute that makes it a crime to support such organisations.

The company said it requested guidance from the department, which began an investigation.

Chiquita said this week that the department had recently advised that, as part of the investigation, it would be evaluating the role and conduct of the company and some of its officers. Chiquita added that it cannot predict the outcome of the investigation or its possible effect on the company or its Colombian subsidiary.