French pork producer Cooperl Arc Atlantique and its subsidiary Brocéliande have been given a reprieve over the payment of a EUR35.5m (US$41.8m) fine imposed by the country’s competition authority over their alleged roles in a ham price-fixing cartel.

Brittany-based Cooperl said the Paris Court of Appeal granted a stay of execution over the penalty on 23 March.

“As a result of this decision, Cooperl and Brocéliande will not have to pay the fine pending the decision on the merits of the Paris Court of Appeal, before which the case is currently pending,” Cooperl said in a statement provided to just-food. It claimed the fine amounted to “judgement fraud” after requesting leniency for acting as the whistleblower in the case.

Competition watchdog the Autorité de la Concurrence imposed the fine on Cooperl and Brocéliande last July as part of a total of EUR93m in penalties dished out to 12 companies implicated for allegedly working together to buy cuts of ham from slaughterhouses at lower prices or to fix prices to be charged to retailers.

Cooperl repeatedly stressed its innocence in the case and lodged an appeal against the fine last September. In October, the company claimed the penalty imposed could force the closure of some of its manufacturing plants and could lead to a downgrade in its credit rating.

That claim generated a response from the country’s Ministry of Economy and Industry, which said at the time: “In the absence of a decision to suspend enforcement, the competent services of the General Directorate of Public Finance will initiate enforcement, under time conditions compatible with the Cooperl group’s ability to pay so that the fine does not represent a risk to the group’s activity and the employment of its staff.”  

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Cooperl had previously insisted evidence presented in the case was fraudulent, a claim reiterated in its statement to just-food: “Cooperl and Brocéliande have always protested their innocence in this matter, and recalled that they have also lodged a complaint for forgery, use of forgery, slanderous denunciation and judgment fraud against their whistleblower, leniency applicant.”

Approached by just-food, the Autorité de la Concurrence said: “The Authority has taken due note of the suspension of execution pronounced by the magistrate delegated by the first president of the court of appeal. This decision has the effect of suspending, on the grounds of the financial difficulties alleged by Cooperl, the enforceability of the sanction vis-à-vis Cooperl. It does not prejudge the outcome of the case on the merits, which will be examined by the Court of Appeal within a few months.”

This article was updated on 30 March 2021 to include comment from the Autorité de la Concurrence.