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July 17, 2020

Cooperl, Fleury Michon to appeal ‘ham cartel’ fines

Manufacturers in France are to appeal a decision from the country's competition watchdog to hand out fines for price-fixing.

By Dean Best

Manufacturers in France are to appeal a decision from the country’s competition watchdog to hand out fines for price-fixing in the charcuterie sector.

France’s L’Autorité de la Concurrence has issued fines totalling EUR93m (US$106.2m) to 12 firms after ruling they took part in a price-fixing cartel. It follows an investigation launched in 2018.

The watchdog alleged the manufacturers involved worked together to either buy cuts of ham from slaughterhouses at lower prices, or fix price increases intended to be charged to retailers – or both.

Cooperl Arc Atlantique, France’s largest pork processor, and its subsidiary Brocéliande, were handed the biggest total fine, standing at more than EUR35.5m.

French food manufacturer Fleury Michon was hit with a penalty of almost EUR14.8m.

In separate statements, Cooperl and Fleury Michon said they would appeal.

The affair came to light thanks to procedures that allow companies involved to make disclosures to the Autorité and benefit, under certain conditions, from full or partial exemption from fines.

Two companies Campofrio and Coop applied for leniency and supplied information for the investigation, the watchdog said. However, it did not grant full exemption from fines to these two firms.

In Cooperl’s statement, the company said the watchdog’s allegations were “based on a single document” from an unnamed executive at Aoste, Campofrio’s French subsidiary. The company claims the information was forged.

Cooperl said its employees alleged to have been involved had denied taking part. The company insists the competition watchdog had not heard its arguments and had been “manipulated”.

“Cooperl Arc Atlantique and Brocéliande, who do not intend to be the victims of such manipulation, will appeal this decision.”

just-food has contacted L’Autorité de la Concurrence for comment on Cooperl’s claims.

Fleury Michon told just-food the allegations covering the sale prices of products downstream did not apply to the business.

However, the company said it “denies having participated in an anti-competitive agreement relating to the purchase price of certain raw materials”.

It added: “Fleury Michon regrets that the Autorité de la Concurrence has not taken into account the information it has provided in its defence. Moreover, Fleury Michon deplores the decision of the Autorité de la Concurrence that the financial penalty is particularly heavy and affects a weakened sector. Fleury Michon will appeal this decision.”

When determining the level of fines, the Autorité said it took into account the strong negotiating power of the mass-market retailers – which limited to a certain extent the impact of the practices on consumer prices – the difficult economic situation in the category and the financial difficulties experienced by some companies.

Les Mousquetaires, the French food manufacturer and retailer, said it would also appeal.

“The agro-industrial division of Les Mousquetaires took note of the decision rendered by the Competition Authority relating to various practices that took place between 2010 and 2013 concerning the delicatessen sector. Its subsidiaries concerned refute and dispute the complaints against them. These will form an action for annulment before the Paris Court of Appeal,” the company said.

Two other companies fined, Aubret – which is part of the Eureden co-op – and Salaisons Du Maconnais declined to comment. 

Nestle, which was among the companies fined and was handed a penalty of EUR96,000, had not returned a request for comment at the time of writing, nor did another fined, the French dairy and charcuterie manufacturer Savencia. 

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