The European Commission has imposed fines totalling €16.7m (US$18.1m) on six French federations in the beef sector for unlawful price fixing.

The federations are being fined for having taken part in an agreement to set a minimum price for some categories of beef and to suspend or, at the very least, limit imports of all types of beef into France.

“The competition rules also apply to agriculture, as this decision makes clear. Nevertheless, the Commission has taken account of the difficult context facing the beef sector, which had been shaken by successive crises. As far as the slaughterers are concerned, it has also taken account of the fact that they were acting under pressure and the threat of violence from farmers”, Mario Monti, the Commission Member with special responsibility for competition, stated.

The fines relate to an agreement made in October 2001 between six French federations in the beef sector. Four of the federations represented farmers and the two others slaughterers. Under the agreement, the federations jointly set a minimum price for beef as well as undertaking to suspend or at least limit imports of all types of beef.

The agreement continued beyond the end of November 2001, the date on which it was supposed to end, despite the fact that the Commission had warned the federations on 25 November 2001 that the agreement was unlawful.

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There appears to be little doubt that the organisations knew that their conduct was unlawful. During the inspections carried out by the Commission in December 2001, documents were found which noted that the agreement was “a bit against the law, but that can’t be helped” and asked “can we close ranks, without being caught by the DGCCRF [the French competition authority]?”