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FBI sting shocks cereals company

AMERICA'S most powerful agribusiness conglomerate, Archer Daniels Midland, is reeling from a week of revelations about an investigation into alleged anti-competitive practices that have sent its share price tumbling and snared several other companies, including a subsidiary of Britain's Tate & Lyle.

Most astonishing have been reports that one of ADM's most senior executives, Mark Whitacre, the president of its BioProducts division, has for three years acted as a mole for the FBI, secretly taping business meetings in cities across the US and abroad.

So far, no charges have been filed against the company, America's largest miller of cereals, nor has the precise nature of the allegations been confirmed. The probe is believed, however, to centre on price-fixing arrangements in the sale of amino acid lysine, a cattle livestock supplement, amino acids, and high fructose corn syrup, widely used in soft drinks.

Also caught in the investigation are three other rival companies, including AE Staley Manufacturing, a subsidiary of Tate & Lyle. With Cargill and CPC International, the company has been served subpoenas by the US government to provide documents pertaining to possible price collusion.

Mr Whitacre, 38, who has had a meteoric rise in the industry and is known in Decatur, Illinois, ADM's base, as a generous benefactor, is said to have blown the whistle on the company in 1992 and offered to assist the government in assembling evidence. With equipment supplied by the FBI, including a wired briefcase, Mr Whitacre apparently taped conversations with executives from other companies in hotel rooms as far away as Tokyo.

More than just a company, ADM is a pillar of the American mid-west, with massive commercial and political influence. With the slogan "ADM, Supermarket to the World", it has for years been one of the main sponsors of the Sunday morning political talk shows on network American television. Its stature has thus rendered the news of the probe doubly shocking, with the consequence that its share price fell by almost 15 per cent in three days last week. Two lawsuits have been filed against it by shareholders.

"Wall Street, as is its custom, is assuming guilty until proven innocent," commented John Mc-Millan, an analyst with Prudential Securities Research. Shaken by news of the investigation, many investors have chosen to bail out, even if, in the long term, prospects for ADM may still be sound. "The easy thing is just to sell and get out of the way," said Mr McMillan.

Another victim of the drama is Howard Buffett, son of American investment guru, Warren Buffett. He reportedly resigned as corporate vice-president of ADM and assistant to the chairman earlier this month. An influence on his decision may have been his father's 7.8 per cent holding in Coca- Cola, a huge customer of ADM's sweetener products.