Monday, June 17, 2013

Canadians Indict Chocolate Companies for Price-Fixing After Lengthy Investigation

Criminal price-fixing charges were recently filed against Canadian affiliates of Nestle and Mars, a network of wholesale distributors, and three individuals, alleging that they conspired to fix chocolate prices in Canada.  In addition, Hershey Canada agreed to plead guilty to price-fixing related to conspiratorial communications with competitors in 2007.

According to recently unsealed documents, a price-fixing investigation of the chocolate companies began when Cadbury came forward as a whistleblower in July 2007 seeking to participate in an immunity program in return for its cooperation.  The chocolate companies allegedly fixed prices during meetings in coffee shops, restaurants, and at trade conventions, and through phone calls and e-mails beginning in 2002.  The conspiracy allegedly involved senior employees in both the United States and Canada.

Chocolate purchasers filed class action lawsuits in the United States against Hershey, Nestle, Mars, and Cadbury in 2008, and class certification was granted in 2012.  Those suits are ongoing.

I was asked in a recent media interview why chocolate in particular was subjected to price-fixing as opposed to some other product.  While a lot of other products are subject to price fixing agreements besides chocolate, products are more susceptible to collusion under certain economic conditions that are present in the chocolate industry.  These include an oligopolistic market, high barriers to entry, high fixed costs, a commodity product, many small customers, and inelasticity of demand (e.g., the absence of close substitutes for the product). 

As chocolate lovers (like myself) can attest, there is no close substitute for chocolate, which many people crave, and which is reported to provide certain health benefits when consumed.  In other words, one of the qualities that makes chocolate susceptible to price-fixing is that people love chocolate, and will continue to purchase chocolate even if prices are artificially inflated.

Update June 21, 2013: Hershey's received a fine of almost $4 million in connection with its guilty plea.  A trial date for Nestle and Mars is set for October 3.

The Law Firm of Kotchen & Low LLP - Civil Litigation, Counseling, and Representation Before Government Agencies

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