US natural and organic retailer Whole Foods Market is seeking sensitive competitive information from rivals as part of its bid to defend its 2007 merger with smaller rival Wild Oats Markets.

The Federal Trade Commission and Whole Foods have been involved in a protracted legal battle over the merger, with the FTC arguing that it diminishes competition and violates antitrust laws.

In preparation for the next stage of the lawsuit, when the merger will be scrutinised by an FTC administrative law judge, While Foods has requested information from 93 retailers in 29 markets.

In a conference call for the media, Jim Sud, executive vice-president of growth and development, said yesterday (13 January) that while some competitors have assisted the company in providing information, others have been reluctant to do so.

"Many of these retailers have been willing to cooperate with these requests and others have not. For those who have not, in order to defend ourselves, our outside attorney's have no choice but to file motions with the FTC's administrative law judge to force production of those documents," Sud said.

In requesting the data, Sud stressed that the information would "not be seen by anybody at Whole Foods Market," not even the general counsel.

The hearing is scheduled to take place in April.