The European Commission has fined four companies for operating a cartel in the sorbates market between 1979 and 1996.

The Commission concluded that Hoechst, Chisso Corporation, Daicel Chemical Industries, The Nippon Synthetic Chemical Industry Co and Ueno Fine Chemicals Industry operated a cartel by which they agreed prices and allocated volume quotas for each other.

Sorbates are one of the most widely used chemical preservatives in Europe and are used to prevent the development of moulds, bacteria and other micro-organisms in foods. They are also used for the coating of cheese wrapping paper and in cosmetics.

Competition Commissioner Mario Monti said that because of this conspiracy, European consumers had paid more for many everyday products than if the companies had competed against each other.

In 1995 the five companies controlled about 85% of the sorbates market in the European Economic Area (EEA). Until it transferred its sorbates business to Nutrinova in 1997, German-based Hoechst was the largest producer of sorbic acid, the main type of sorbates, followed by Daicel. Apart from Hoechst, the companies are all headquartered in Japan.

The Commission said it viewed the cartel agreement as a very serious violation of EU competition law and had imposed fines accordingly. Hoechst was given the highest fine, €99m (US$115.5m), because of its overall size as well as its share of the relevant market and the fact that it had committed a similar violation in the past.

Daicel was fined €16.6m, Ueno Fine Chemicals Industry was fined €12.3m, while The Nippon Synthetic Chemical Industry was fined €10.5m.

Chisso fulfilled the conditions for full immunity and, therefore, did not receive a fine.