France fines charcuterie industry €93m for price fixing

France has issued a fine of €93 million in total to 12 French “ham cartel” groups that have been found guilty of price fixing their charcuterie products in supermarkets, and working together to buy cheaper cuts.

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The companies were today (July 17) ordered to pay the fines for price-fixing charges between 2010 and 2013, by the monopoly authority l’Autorité de la Concurrence.

The biggest single fine (€35.5 million) went to Cooperl, a company often seen as the leading French pork producer, which has six charcuterie production sites.

This was followed by the distribution group Les Mousquetaires (whose brands are seen in the supermarkets Intermarché and Netto), and also the own-brand names Monique Ranou (€31.7 million); and the Fleury Michon group (€14.8 million).

In a statement, the authority said: “The manufacturers concerned...were coordinating to buy cheaper cuts of ham from abattoirs, and/or were also agreeing on price increases for pork products that they intended to apply to supermarket chains for their private labels or 'premium prices’.”

The actions concerned “a very large number of everyday consumer products (cured ham, cooked ham, sausages, rosette, chorizo)”, it continued.

The companies contacted each other “individually by telephone before the start of negotiations with abattoirs”, the statement said, and price-fixing in supermarkets was agreed “through multiple telephone exchanges and at least six secret meetings between competitors in Paris and Lyon”.

The facts came to light due to the authority’s “clemency procedure”, which allows whistleblowers to obtain “under certain conditions, a total or partial exemption from financial penalties”, it said.

The companies Campofrio and Coop blew the whistle on the incidents, but did not escape penalties. They were sanctioned with a lower fine of €6 million each.

Campofrio markets its products under the company brands Aoste and Jean Caby.

Plans to appeal

Cooperl and Fleury Michon have already announced plans to appeal the decision.

In a statement, Cooperl denounced the case as a “manipulation”, and said: “This decision imposes an extremely heavy penalty on a cooperative group on the basis of elements that are as false as they are slanderous, and which were fabricated from scratch by a competing group.”

It said that the case had been brought based on a “single document” from the commercial director of the Aoste company, which, it said, was “a forgery both in form and in substance" and "constituted the instrument of a veritable scam”.

But l’Autorité de la Concurrence said that there were “no grounds on which to doubt the authenticity of the document”.

For its part, Fleury Michon said: “[We] regret that the authority did not take into account the information [the company] submitted in its defence" and "deplores the decision all the more since the financial penalty is particularly heavy and hits a weakened sector".

But the authority defended its fines, saying: "In order to determine the penalty amount...we have considered in particular the strong bargaining power of the supermarket chains - which has to some extent limited the effect of the practices on consumer prices, the economic situation in the charcuterie sector, and the individual financial difficulties encountered by certain firms.”

This is not the first time that the pork industry in France has been in trouble with l’Autorité de la Concurrence.

In February 2013, the authority issued a fine of €4.5 million to five Breton abattoirs for having, in 2009, "coordinated a reduction in pig slaughtering", in order to lower the price of meat paid to farmers.

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