More retailers – and now at least one individual consumer – have filed class-actions lawsuits against a number of Norwegian farmed salmon producers, months after the European Commission announced it had launched an investigation into allegations of anti-competitive practices in the sector.
A resident in the U.S. state of Maine, Robin Wilkey, filed suit on behalf of consumers in 27 states and the District of Columbia against Mowi, SalMar, Lerøy Seafood, Grieg Seafood, Ocean Quality, and others on 11 June, initiating a class-action complaint citing the E.C.’s investigation. Wilkey’s allegations are similar to those in a lawsuit filed by direct purchasers on 23 April.
“The purpose of the conspiratorial and unlawful conduct of defendants and their co- conspirators was to fix, raise, stabilize and/or maintain the price of farm-raised salmon and products derived therefrom,” the Wilkey lawsuit alleges. “By reason of the alleged violations of the antitrust laws, Plaintiff and the members of the Class have sustained injury to their businesses or property, having paid higher prices for farm-raised salmon and products derived therefrom than they would have paid in the absence of Defendants’ illegal contract, combination, or conspiracy and, as a result, have suffered damage sin an amount presently undetermined. This is an antitrust injury of the type that the antitrust laws were meant to punish and prevent.”
While a 26 June court filing shows Wilkey apparently dropping the suit, it remains likely the companies named in the suit will face additional legal challenges from consumers affected by any alleged price-fixing. Additionally, several class-action lawsuits filed on behalf of U.S. direct purchasers continue to advance, with the judge in the case ordering the separate suits to be consolidated on 9 May. And another class-action lawsuit filed by indirect purchasers of Norwegian farmed salmon was filed on 24 May in the U.S. District Court in the Southern District of Florida by Wood Mountain Fish LLC.
However, as the cases advances, the European Commission has remained silent in regard to the progress of the investigation. Since its initial public notice of its investigation was released on 19 February, it has not issued any subsequent public update. Sources at companies named in the suit confirmed to SeafoodSource that they have not received any communication from the E.C. since the 6 February letter it sent to the companies announcing its planned inspections of their facilities, in relation to information it received – “from different actors operating at different levels in the salmon market – alleging that some Norwegian producers of farmed Norwegian Atlantic salmon … participate or have participated in anti-competitive agreements and/or concerted practices related to different ways of price coordination in order to sustain and possibly increase prices of farmed Norwegian Atlantic salmon.”
The E.C. informed the companies in the letter – confirmed by SeafoodSource to include Mowi, Grieg Seafood, Lerøy Seafood, and SalMar – that it was investigating collusive practices including “coordinating their sales prices and exchanging commercially sensitive information, agreeing to purchase production from other competitors when these other competitors sell at lower prices, and applying a coordinated strategy to increase spot prices of farmed Norwegian Atlantic salmon in order to secure high price levels in long-term contracts.”
Hamish Macdonell, the strategic engagement director for the Scottish Salmon Producers’ Organisation, said his organization hasn’t heard anything from its members regarding further communications from the E.C., after several salmon-farming facilities in Scotland owned by Norwegian parent companies were visited by E.C. inspectors in February.
“I have not been given any updates, either from E.C. or from our member companies,” he told SeafoodSource in an email.
A source at one of the companies being investigated expressed frustration at the open-ended nature of the E.C.’s investigatory practice, especially as the lawsuits against the company mount.
In a 19 February press release – the E.C.’s first and thus far only public communication regarding the investigation – it said the unannounced inspections were “only a preliminary investigatory step into suspected anti-competitive practices.”
“There is no legal deadline to complete inquiries into anti-competitive conduct,” the press release said. “Their duration depends on a number of factors, including the complexity of each case, the extent to which the companies concerned co-operate with the Commission and the exercise of the rights of defence.”
Numerous calls by SeafoodSource to the press office of the European Commission went unanswered on Wednesday, 26 June and Thursday, 27 June.