Commission concerned one of largest agri coops participated in ‘canned vegetables cartel’

The European Commission has informed one of the largest food companies in Europe its “preliminary view” that it has breached EU antitrust rules by “colluding to distort competition in the market for canned vegetables in the EEA [European Economic Area]”.

Conserve Italia Soc. coop. Agricola and its subsidiary Conserves France SA, which together are referred to as Conserve Italia, is an Italian agricultural cooperative producing, amongst other products, canned vegetables. The commission has sent the company a Statement of Objectives.

The commission has concerns that Conserve Italia may have “colluded with other market participants within the EEA to fix selling prices, share markets and allocate customers for the supply of certain types of canned vegetables under own brands or under private labels to retailers and/or food service companies”.

In particular, the commission suspects that it has participated in horizontal price fixing and market sharing agreements, through which they coordinated their commercial conduct with other market participants, for several consecutive years.

If the commission’s preliminary view is confirmed, such behaviour would violate EU rules that prohibit anti-competitive business practices such as collusion on prices and market sharing.

The sending of a Statement of Objections does not prejudge the outcome of an investigation.

Background

In September 2019, the Commission adopted a settlement decision against Bonduelle, Coroos and Groupe CECAB, finding that the three companies participated for more than 13 years in a cartel for the supply of certain types of canned vegetables to retailers and/or food service companies in the EEA.

The commission’s investigation had started with unannounced inspections in October 2013. The three companies admitted their involvement in the cartel and total fines of €31.6 million were imposed.

In the context of the same investigation, the commission opened proceedings against a fourth company, Conserve Italia. Conserve Italia was not covered by the September 2019 settlement decision and, therefore, the investigation concerning this company continued under the standard (non-settlement) cartel procedure.

A Statement of Objections is a formal step in commission investigations into suspected violations of EU rules on restrictive business practices. The commission informs the parties concerned in writing of the objections raised against them. The parties can then examine the documents in the commission’s investigation file, reply in writing and request an oral hearing to present their comments on the case before representatives of the commission and national competition authorities.

If, after the parties have exercised their rights of defence, the commission concludes that there is sufficient evidence of an infringement, it can adopt a decision prohibiting the conduct and imposing a fine of up to 10% of a company’s annual worldwide turnover.