Sun, Jun 05, 2005 - Page 11 News List

EU raids fruit firms over price-fixing claims

COMPETITION Antitrust officials paid surprise visits to suppliers in Belgium, Ireland, the UK and Germany after allegations that a cartel had been fixing prices for years

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , BRUSSELS, BELGIUM

European antitrust officials raided the offices of banana and pineapple suppliers this week, after a tip that the companies may have conspired to fix prices for many years, the European Commission said on Friday.

Chiquita Brands International, the US fruit giant based in Cincinnati, said on Friday that it had alerted the commission after discovering that some of its own employees in Europe had been part of a cartel scheme.

"The company's management recently became aware that certain of its employees had shared pricing and volume information over many years with competitors in Europe, and may have engaged in other conduct, in violation of European competition laws and company policies," Chiquita said in a statement.

The European Commission, which takes the lead in investigating antitrust matters in the EU, raided the offices of fruit companies in Belgium, Ireland, the UK and Germany on Thursday, it said in a statement. It did not give the names of the companies.

Brian Bell, a spokesman for Fyffes, which is based in Dublin and is a major distributor of bananas and pineapples in Europe, confirmed that antitrust officials paid surprise visits Thursday morning to its offices in Ireland and Britain.

"We are cooperating fully with the investigation," he said.

"When we asked what the visit was about," Bell said, "they told us it was part of an ongoing investigation into the banana and pineapple markets involving lots of companies both big and small."

"There was no mention of a cartel," he said.

The European division of the Dole Food Co, which is based in Westlake Village, California, was also raided, according to Reuters.

"We received a visit in Hamburg, but there is certainly no cartel," William Feeney, president of Dole Europe, told the news agency.

Fresh Del Monte Produce, based in George Town, Grand Cayman, confirmed to Bloomberg News that it, too, had been raided.

It was not clear whether other companies may have been visited by the authorities.

Chiquita said it stopped the employees' price-fixing activity as soon as it was discovered.

"The commission has granted Chiquita immunity from any fines related to the conduct, conditioned on the company's continued cooperation, among other things," Chiquita said.

Europe's competition commissioner, Neelie Kroes, has described cartels as "the most damaging kind of anticompetitive practice" and has made breaking them up one of her top priorities.

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