UPDATE 1-Brazil regulator settles 17-yr-old case with orange juice producers

(Adds case details, context, comments from industry group, producers association)

SAO PAULO, Nov 23 (Reuters) - Brazil’s antitrust agency Cade said on Wednesday it has settled a 17-year-old case against Brazilian orange juice producers accused of colluding to reduce prices paid to farmers.

Cade settled with juice producers Cutrale, Citrovita, Coinbra (Louis Dreyfus Co), Fischer, Cargill , Bascitrus and industry group Abecitrus, along with nine individuals involved in the cartel case. They will pay a combined 301 million reais ($89 million) to end the probe.

It was the agency’s oldest case, with an investigation starting in 1999 after complaints from independent fruit producers regarding juice makers’ buying practices. Brazil is the world’s largest orange juice producer and exporter, representing half of the juice sold worldwide.

“They admitted participation in the conduct being investigated, pledged to end those practices and cooperated with Cade to elucidate the facts,” the antitrust body said in a statement.

According to Cade, the companies also agreed to withdraw several lawsuits that have blocked the probe’s progress in the past.

The Brazilian orange juice industry has undergone significant consolidation since the start of the case.

Cargill left the business in 2004, when it sold its operations in the country to Cutrale and Citrosuco.

Citrosuco later merged with Fischer and along with Cutrale and Louis Dreyfus currently dominate the sector in Brazil.

The settlement was criticized by Associtrus, which represents most independent orange producers.

“The payment was disproportionate to the losses imposed by the cartel to the farmers,” Associtrus head Flavio Viegas said.

Ibiapaba Neto, director of CitrusBR, which replaced Abecitrus in representing Brazil’s orange juice industry, said the case was an old issue, but the easing in the relationship between industries and independent growers is beneficial to the sector. ($1 = 3.38 reais) (Reporting by Marcelo Teixeira, Ana Mano and Gustavo Bonato; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Jeffrey Benkoe)