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German Coffee Companies Get A Wake-Up Call For Price-Fixing

Posted  June 14, 2010

The Bundeskartellamt, Germany’s version of the U.S. Department of Justice Antitrust Division, has announced it is fining eight coffee roasters 30 million euros ($35.9 million) for illegally fixing the price of wholesale coffee sold to bulk customers such as restaurants and hotels.

Bundeskartellamt President Andreas Mundt spoke strongly about the need for antitrust regulation, saying that “cartels … are highly damaging to society and therefore have to be rigorously prosecuted” and noting that “coordinated price increases for consumer goods such as coffee have a direct impact on consumers’ wallets,”

The Bundeskartellamt is  assessing a fine for the German Coffee Association (GCA) and 10 employees.  The eight coffee roasters (Tchibo GmbH, Kraft Foods Außer Haus Service GmbH, J.J. Darboven GmbH & Co. KG, Melitta SystemService GmbH & Co. Kommanditgesellschaft, Luigi Lavazza Deutschland GmbH, Seeberger KG, Segafredo Zanetti Deutschland GmbH and Gebr. Westhoff GmbH & Co. KG) include local units of two U.S. companies, Kraft Foods Inc. and Luigi Lavazza SpA.

According to the Bundeskartellamt’s investigation, from at least 1997 through mid-2008, a group of directors and sales managers at the roasters within the GCA coordinated price hikes and cuts – but mostly hikes – for roasted coffee supplied to restaurants, caterers, hotels, vending machine companies and other bulk consumers.

The Bundeskartellamt has a Leniency Programme, which allows for fines to be waived or reduced for cartel members who report price-fixing or cooperate.  It was a leniency filing from cartel member Alois Dallmayr Kaffee OHG that triggered the Bundeskartellamt’s investigation in the first place, and it has escaped a fine as a result.  Two other coffee makers – Melitta and Darboven – cooperated with the investigation and have apparently received reduced penalties as a result, though the amount of the fines for each cartel member have not been released.  The GCA has admitted liability and said it regretted the infringement in a separate statement.

German law allows the Bundeskartellamt  to fine member companies up to 10 percent of their revenues from the previous fiscal year if they uncover a cartel in the course of an investigation.  With the potential for such a mammoth fine, it is not surprising that six of the companies and their employees have already agreed to settle the regulator’s claims instead of fighting.

This week’s activity is part of increased scrutiny the Bundeskartellamt has placed on the coffee industry in Germany in recent years.  Though this investigation has only been underway since 2009, the Bundeskartellamt already fined three of the coffee roasters (Tchibo, Melitta and Alois Dallmayr) and six of their employees approximately 159.5 million euros in December based on a similar price-fixing cartel in the retail sector that allegedly ran from early 2000 until July 2008.  A separate investigation into cappuccino makers based on similar price-fixing suspicions remains underway, and is expected to be completed soon.

Tagged in: Antitrust Enforcement, International Competition Issues, Price Fixing,