French agri co-op Cooperl considering closures following price-fixing fine

Cooperl, owned by 2,950 breeder members, maintains that it is innocent

French agri food co-op Cooperl has warned about potential factory closures and job cuts after it was asked to pay a €35m (£31.6m) fine for taking part in an alleged price-fixing cartel.

The largest pork processing company in France, Cooperl was one of 12 companies who in July were found guilty of price-fixing their cold meat products between 2010 and 2013. Swiss supermarket Coop was also among these but was fined only €6m (£5.4m) after agreeing to collaborate with the authorities – along with Campofrio – for a more lenient sentence. Campofrio was fined €1m (£902,800).

In a July statement, the French Competition Authority (l’Autorité de la Concurrence) said: “The manufacturers concerned … were coordinating to buy cheaper cuts of ham from abattoirs, and/or were also agreeing on price increases for pork products that they intended to apply to supermarket chains for their private labels or ‘premium prices’.”

The authority said the companies had been in contact by telephone before the start of negotiations with abattoirs and agreed price fixing in supermarkets “through multiple telephone exchanges and at least six secret meetings between competitors in Paris and Lyon”. It added that the actions concerned “a very large number of everyday consumer products,” including cured ham, cooked ham, sausages, rosette and chorizo.

Cooperl was ordered to pay the highest single fine by the authority . The decision poses a big threat to the future of the group, which employs 7,200 people. The co-op reported a €2.4bn (£2.2bn) turnover in 2019.

Cooperl has appealed the decision and asked for a suspension of the execution of the sanction, warning that paying the fine would result in it closing factories and making redundancies

The Ministry of Economy said in a statement last week that it would work with the co-operative to ensure the repayment will not lead to job losses and closures.

“In the absence of a suspension decision, the competent services of the General Directorate of Public Finance will initiate its execution, under time conditions compatible with the reimbursement capacity of the Cooperl Arc Atlantique group so that the fine does not represent a risk for the group’s activity and the employment of its employees, as discussed with the competent State services several weeks ago,” the ministry said in a statement.

Meanwhile, Cooperl maintains that it is innocent. It claims that itself and its subsidiary, the Brocéliande breeders brand, did not get along with their competitors and that in 2013-2014 Cooperl’s market share had increased to the detriment of competitions in other countries. The co-op is contesting the validity of a piece of evidence submitted by its competitor Campofrio – a notebook belonging to one their directors.

Cooperl is owned by 2,950 breeder members.