Mexico's anti-trust watchdog opens new soft-drink probe

MEXICO CITY, Nov 9 (Reuters) - Mexico’s anti-trust watchdog said on Monday it launched a new investigation into alleged monopoly practices in the nation’s soft-drink market, one of the world’s biggest.

The Federal Competition Commission, or Cofeco, is investigating charges that major players were offering perks to merchants on conditions they only sold their soft-drink products, among other allegations, according to a notice published in the government’s daily gazette.

Large Mexican companies have been largely successful in using legal injunctions to avoid most charges of monopolistic practices.

But in 2008, Mexico’s Supreme Court upheld fines that had been handed out by Cofeco, totaling almost $15 million, against 15 Coca-Cola bottlers and distributors in Mexico on charges similar to the new investigation.

Among the companies then fined was Coca-Cola FEMSA KOF.NKOFL.MX, controlled by giant drinks companies FEMSA FMSAUBD.MXFMX.N and Coca-Cola Co KO.N. FEMSA is Mexico's largest soft-drinks bottler and the second-biggest in the world by volume.

“Given the investigation is in its initial phase, we do not know against whom it is directed or who are the plaintiffs,” a Coca-Cola FEMSA executive said in an e-mailed statement to Reuters, on condition of anonymity.

The investigation of the soft-drink market comes on top of a probe began earlier this year into similar practices. A Cofeco spokesman said the cases were separate and likely involved different companies but declined to name names.

Legal restrictions prevent Cofeco from disclosing details about what companies are involved in active investigations.

Consumers in Mexico drink more Coca-Cola products per capita than any other nation in the world, about 40 gallons (150 liters) of carbonated drinks per person a year, according to producers, making the country a key battleground for soft-drink firms. (Reporting by Veronica Sparrowe and Michael O’Boyle)