* Over 60 million euros of fines imposed by cartel office
* Price increases agreed as commodity costs rose
* Mars unit cooperates with investigation
By Michael Hogan
HAMBURG, Jan 31 Germany's federal competition
agency said on Thursday it has imposed over 60 million euros of
fines for anti-competitive behaviour on 11 chocolate and
confectionery firms for agreeing price increases.
The fines imposed on individual companies were not given.
"The investigation had been started after a witness leniency
application was received from Mars GmbH which will receive no
fine under the agency's regulations for rewarding assistance,"
the agency said in a statement.
The fines followed searches of company offices made in
February 2008, the agency said. Mars GmbH is the German unit of
the U.S. food major Mars.
Agency president Andreas Mundt said in a statement: "In
2007, raw materials prices for chocolate production such as milk
and cocoa rose sharply. Companies obviously wanted to be sure
that they could pass these costs onto consumers.
"Competition with competitors was quickly switched off and
consumers were burdened with price increases."
Fines totalling 21.7 million euros were on Thursday
announced after Kraft Foods Deutschland GmbH, the German unit of
U.S. group Kraft, and German chocolate maker Alfred
Ritter GmbH & Co. KG agreed price increases for chocolate bars
between March and September 2007, the agency said.
Recommended chocolate prices in 2008 were raised by 15-25
percent, the agency said.
Fines totalling 19.5 million euros were imposed as a result
of talks about chocolate prices between Alfred Ritter, Mars GmbH
and Nestle Kaffee und Schokoladen GmbH, part of Swiss group
Nestle it said.
In early 2008 average price increases of about 10 percent
followed, it said.
Ritter said in a statement it would appeal.
"Ritter Sport strongly rejects the allegations of
unpermitted price agreements and also the allegation of an
exchange of information which restricted competition or other
behaviour which was to the detriment of consumers," Ritter said.
"The company rejects this decision and will therefore appeal
against the fine."
Competitors also exchanged information about planned price
increases and negotiations with retailers between 2004 to early
2008 in the commercial conditions working group of the German
sweet producers' association, the agency said. The sweet
producers' association is unrelated to Germany's national
confectionary association, the BDSI.
Companies participating in the working group included
Ritter, Bahlsen GmbH & Co. KG, Griesson de Beukelaer GmbH & Co.
KG, Storck GmbH & Co. KG, Katjes Fassin GmbH + Co. KG, CFP
Brands Süßwarenhandels GmbH & Co. KG, Feodora Chocolade GmbH &
Co. KG, Piasten GmbH & Co. KG und Zentis GmbH & CO. KG.
Kraft Foods Deutschland spokeswoman Barbara Blohberger said:
"We can confirm that a mutually agreed process has been
completed after which we will pay a fine."
She declined to say how large the fine would be.
No one was immediately available for comment at Nestle