The newly-appointed chairman of South African food group Pioneer Foods has apologised for its involvement in the alleged fixing of wheat milling prices.

The company, which manufactures Weet-Bix cereal, is being investigated by the South African Competition Commission, over the alleged fixing of prices and allocating customers to each other, and faces a ZAR1.6bn (US$220m) fine.

Since receiving notification from the Commission last week recommending the penalty, which amounts to 10% of the firm’s 2009 annual group turnover, the firm has appointed a new board.

Boy Blanckenberg, chairman, Nols Louw, vice-chairman, Albie Bester, Kosie van Niekerk and Antonie Jacobs all stepped down from their roles.

Pioneer Food's board now comprises vice-chairman Dr Iqbal Surve and non-executive directors Professor Mohammad Karaan, the dean of agriculture at Stellenbosch University and a director of Kaap Agri, and Thys du Toit, the chairman of winemaker KWV and former managing director of Coronation Fund Managers.

Speaking at a teleconference on Monday (29 March), Combi apologised “unequivocally” on behalf of Pioneer Foods for its involvement in anti-competitive activities.

“I also want to apologise for the fact that a settlement of various matters was not more successfully pursued earlier which may have settled matters sooner. It is of little comfort that legal advice made Pioneer Foods resist Competition authorities in what some might say was an arrogant fashion and created the impression that Pioneer Foods was obstructive and did not want to cooperate with
Regulators,” he said.

Combi said the restructuring of the board had brought about a “new chapter” in Pioneer Foods' history. He added that the firm would now “turn a page” and commit itself “anew as board and management, to the principles of transparent, competitive behaviour” and the sustainable growth of the business.

“We will ensure that the culture of our organisation meets these challenges as we lead by example through our code of professional conduct to which every employee is accountable. I have the support of the old board members, the new board members and shareholders in this regard,” Combi said.

The board was cooperating fully with regulators and was also pursuing a settlement with the Competition Commission, he added.

“It is the board's mission to be a good corporate citizen and to ensure that a culture of compliance is established throughout the company. Any new contravention of the Competition Act will lead to immediate disciplinary action against the relevant employee. Past actions will also be evaluated where applicable,” Combi insisted.