European Commission investigating potential price-fixing in European farmed salmon sector

The European Commission has confirmed it carried out unannounced inspections on the morning of Tuesday, 19 February at the premises of several companies involved in the farmed Atlantic salmon sector in Europe.

In a statement, the E.C. said it “has concerns that the inspected companies may have violated E.U. antitrust rules that prohibit cartels and restrictive business practices.”

The E.C. did not say what sparked its investigation, nor did it identify which companies are being investigated or which sites its investigators visited. However, Mowi (formerly Marine Harvest) and Grieg Seafood confirmed to SeafoodSource their facilities were among those visited on Tuesday. Additionally, a Scottish Sea Farms facility jointly owned by SalMar and Leroy Seafood was also inspected, SalMar CEO Olav-Andreas Ervik confirmed to Reuters.

“We have been informed that The European Commission DG (Director General) Competition is exploring potential anti-competitive behavior in the salmon industry. They have performed an inspection today at Grieg Seafood Shetland,” Grieg Seafood Global Communications Manager Kristina Furnes told SeafoodSource in an email. “The salmon market is very competitive and we are not aware of any anti-competitive behavior. We are co-operating with the European Commission DG Competition’s investigation.”

Furne referred further questions about the investigation to the European Commission DG Competition. 

Mowi Communications Director Ola Helge Hjetland said the company had been surprised by the inspectors arriving at two of its sites on Tuesday morning.

“We were not expecting a visit,” he told SeafoodSource.

Hjetland confirmed that European Commission inspectors arrived at two of the company’s sites – its Rosyth facility in Scotland and and its Sterk location in the Netherlands – at around 10 a.m. and left in the afternoon before the end of the business day.

“We have nothing to hide and have been cooperating with the inspectors and European Commission throughout the day to “make sure they could do their jobs,” Hjetland said. “Other than that, it’s too early for us to go into detail.”

In its statement, the European Commission said its efforts on Tuesday represented an initial move in an open-ended process.

“Unannounced inspections are a preliminary investigatory step into suspected anti-competitive practices. The fact that the Commission carries out such inspections does not mean that the companies are guilty of anti-competitive behavior nor does it prejudge the outcome of the investigation itself,” it said. “The Commission respects the rights of defense, in particular the right of companies to be heard in antitrust proceedings.”

The E.C. said it did not have a timetable for its investigation, and its investigation is limited to outcomes affecting European Union salmon customers only. The E.C. is only able to take action against companies for any misdeeds, not individuals. 

“There is no legal deadline to complete inquiries into anti-competitive conduct,” it 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 defense.”

Companies discovered to be in violation of E.U. antitrust rules can be fined up to 10 percent of their global turnover.

Bakkafrost CEO Regin Jacobsen and Norway Royal Salmon Chief Financial Officer Ola, and representatives from Scottish salmon producers Wester Ross and Loch Duart, told Intrafish their companies were not involved in the investigations on Tuesday.

The European Commission has not previously investigated the farmed salmon sector for cartel-related activity, but in 2013, it fined four European North Sea shrimp traders a total of EUR 28.7 million (USD 32.5 million) for operating a cartel in breach of E.U. antitrust rules.

The companies involved – the Dutch firms Heiploeg, Klaas Puul, and Kok Seafood and the German firm Stührk – agreed to fix prices and share sales volumes for North Sea shrimp sold in Belgium, France, Germany and the Netherlands over varying periods of time between 2000 and 2009.

“The purpose of the cartel was to freeze the market by stabilizing the suppliers' market shares in order to facilitate price increases and stimulate profitability,” the E.C. said in a 2013 press release. “[Their] discussions usually covered a wide range of aspects of their business, including their purchase prices from fishermen, conduct towards other traders on the market, market sharing, and prices charged to specific important customers that often set the benchmark price for other customers.”


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