Brussels, 25 June 2014
Antitrust: Commission fines three producers of canned mushrooms € 32 million in cartel settlement
The European Commission has found that Lutèce, Prochamp and Bonduelle participated in a cartel to coordinate prices and allocate customers of canned mushrooms in Europe during more than a year and has imposed fines totalling € 32 225 000. Lutèce was not fined as it benefited from immunity under the Commission's 2006 Leniency Notice for revealing the existence of the cartel to the Commission. Prochamp benefitted from fine reductions. Since all three undertakings agreed to settle the case with the Commission, their fines were further reduced by 10%.
Commission Vice President in charge of competition policy, Joaquín Almunia, said: "The cartel for canned mushrooms, which aimed to avoid a fall in prices, covered sales to retailers throughout Europe for more than a year. This means that potentially, all consumers may have been affected. After the shrimps cartel at the end of last year, this is yet another cartel penalised by the Commission in the food sector, where it is essential to protect European consumers against anticompetitive practices."
Canned mushrooms are mushrooms sold in tins and jars, except fresh mushrooms or frozen mushrooms. The cartel covered the sales of private label canned mushrooms via tender procedures to retailers and food wholesalers such as cash and carry companies and professional customers such as catering companies in the European Economic Area (EEA).
The overall aim of the cartelists was to stabilise the market shares of the companies involved and stop the decline of prices. To achieve this aim the cartel members exchanged confidential information on tenders, set minimum prices, agreed on volume targets and allocated customers. The cartel was a non-aggression pact with a compensation scheme in case of customer transfer and application of minimum prices which had been agreed beforehand. The infringement lasted from 1 September 2010 to respectively 22 December 2011 for Lutèce and 28 February 2012, for Prochamp and Bonduelle.
In the context of the same investigation, proceedings were opened against Riberebro and the investigation will continue under the standard (non-settlement) cartel procedure.
In setting the level of fines, the Commission took into account, in particular, the companies' sales of the products concerned in the EEA, the serious nature of the infringement, its geographic scope and its duration. The Commission made sure to achieve an appropriate level of deterrence while ensuring the proportionality of the fines imposed.
Under the Commission's 2006 Leniency Notice, Lutèce received full immunity for revealing the existence of the cartel and thereby avoided a fine of € 20.7 million for its participation in the infringement; Prochamp received a reduction of 30% for cooperating with the investigation.
Moreover, under the Commission's 2008 Settlement Notice, the Commission further reduced the fines imposed on all three undertakings by 10% as they acknowledged their participation in the cartel and their liability in this respect.
The total fines imposed are as follows:
Competition rules play an important role in the food supply chain. In 2012, a report of the European Competition Network showed that strong enforcement of competition rules in the food sector had helped operators in accessing supplies and markets and consumers in enjoying lower prices (see IP/12/502 and MEMO/12/373). The Commission has carried out a number of investigations concerning food products (see for example its decision on the shrimps cartel IP/13/1175) and is working with other European competition authorities to implement the specific competition rules applying to agricultural products following the reform of the common agriculture policy. The Commission is also addressing concerns expressed about the possible deterioration of choice and innovation in food products and has launched a comprehensive study to assess the evolution and drivers of choice and innovation (see IP/12/1356). The results of the study will be published in Autumn 2014.
More information on this case will be available under the case number 39965 in the public case register on the Commission's competition website, once confidentiality issues have been dealt with. For more information on the Commission’s action against cartels, see its cartels website.
The settlement procedure
Today's decision is the fourteenth settlement decision since the introduction of the settlement procedure for cartels in June 2008 (see IP/08/1056 and MEMO/08/458). Under a settlement, undertakings that have participated to a cartel acknowledge their participation in the infringement and their liability for it. The settlement procedure is based on the Antitrust Regulation 1/2003 and allows the Commission to apply a simplified procedure and thereby reduce the length of the investigation. This is good for consumers and for taxpayers as it reduces costs; good for antitrust enforcement as it frees up resources to tackle other suspected cases; and good for the companies themselves that benefit from quicker decisions and a 10% reduction in fines.
The Commission previously reached settlements with participants in cartels for DRAMs (see IP/10/586), animal feed phosphates (see IP/10/985), washing powder (see IP/11/473), glass for cathode ray tubes (see IP/11/1214), compressors for fridges (see IP/11/1511), water management products (see IP/12/704), wire harnesses (see ), Euro interest rate derivatives and Yen interest rate derivatives (see ), Polyurethane Foam (see IP/14/88), Power Exchanges (see IP/14/215), Bearings (see IP/14/280) and Steel Abrasives (see IP/14/359).
Action for damages
Any person or firm affected by anti-competitive behaviour as described in this case may bring the matter before the courts of the Member States and seek damages. The case law of the Court and Council Regulation 1/2003 both confirm that in cases before national courts, a Commission decision is binding proof that the behaviour took place and was illegal. Even though the Commission has fined the companies concerned, damages may be awarded without these being reduced on account of the Commission fine.
In June 2013, the Commission presented a proposal for a Directive that aims at making it easier for victims of anti-competitive practices to obtain such damages (see IP/13/525 and MEMO/13/531). More information on antitrust damages actions, including a practical guide on how to quantify the harm typically caused by antitrust infringements, the public consultation and a citizens' summary, is available at: http://ec.europa.eu/competition/antitrust/actionsdamages/documents.html