The European Commission (EC) has fined a group of European packaging manufacturers and distributors a total of 115.9 million euros ($129.1 million) for having participated in “at least one of five separate cartels” across the Continent.
The manufacturers are Linpac Group of Featherstone, England; Huhtamäki Oyj of Espoo, Finland; French molder Nespak of Ornans, and Vitembal of Remoulins; Italy's Coopbox Italia Srl of Bibbiano, Magic Pack Srl of Prosus and Sirap-Gema SpA from Verolanuova; and Silver Plastics GmbH & Co. KG of Troisdorf, Germany.
The distributors involved are Propack of Huddersfield, England, and Ovarpack from Ovar, Portugal.
The EC's antitrust commission said that between March 2000 and February 2008 the companies “fixed prices and allocated customers of polystyrene foam or polypropylene rigid trays, in breach of [European Union] antitrust rules.”
It went on: “From the early 2000s and for periods ranging from just over a year to almost eight years, and with some differences between the cartels, the 10 companies fixed prices, allocated customers and markets, engaged in bid-rigging and exchanged commercially-sensitive information.
“Each of the cartels operated within the framework of multilateral and bilateral contacts usually held on the fringes of legitimate industry gatherings. Physical meetings were complemented by numerous emails and phone exchanges.
“In some of these cartels, the participants would refer to their illegal contacts as ‘the Club' or ‘Mafia.'”
The EC said it had granted Linpac full immunity under leniency guidelines since it had revealed the existence of the cartels to the Commission.
Commissioner Margrethe Vestager, in charge of competition policy, said millions of consumers buying food for themselves and their families could have been affected by the cartels.
“The companies concerned carved up the retail food packaging market and agreed on prices rather than competing on their merits.
“Cartels harm our entire economy when companies set prices instead of the market. This removes the incentive to innovate and will not be tolerated.”
The trays only cost a few euro cents each, the EC noted in a news release, but retailers use billions of them each year for retail packaging of items such as cheese, meat, fish and cake.
In a lengthy statement Linpac said it fully accepted the commission's findings.
“We apologize for any wrongdoing by Linpac employees in the past. As soon as Linpac became aware of the anti-competitive behavior, which took place before 2008 and before our current management team was in place, the company alerted the European Commission.
“Our approach has been recognized by the EC in its decision not to subject Linpac to any penalties.
“We have, since 2008, significantly strengthened our compliance training to ensure that Linpac employees are fully aware of our legal obligations, including in respect of EU competition law, and we seek to uphold the highest ethical standards.
“Linpac's priority continues to be to build the most trusted brand in the market for fresh food packaging and food service solutions.
“Our new leadership team is determined to ensure that we live up to this commitment by working hard for our packer, distributor and retailer customers.”
Of the manufacturers Sirap-Gema was hit with the biggest fine, 35.9 million euros ($40.2 million), followed by Coopbox, 33.7 million euros ($37.7 million); Silver Plastics, 21.2 million euros ($24.3 million); Huhtamäki, 15.6 million euros ($17.4 million); Nespak, 5 million euros ($5.6 million); Magic Pack, 3.3 million euros ($3.7 million), and Vitembal, 1.1 million euros ($1.2 milllion).
Portugal's Ovarpark was fined 67,000 ($75,000) and the U.K.'s Propack was hit with a 65,000 euros ($72,800) fine.