Detergent makers raided in EU prices inquiry

Competition regulators have raided the offices of Europe's largest manufacturers of household products, including Unilever and Procter & Gamble, it emerged last night.

The raids, conducted by officials from the European Commission and their counterparts at national competition watchdogs, were on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. They follow an investigation into whether companies across Europe have been fixing the cost of washing powder and other similar products.

Companies targeted in the raids include Unilever, P&G, Sara Lee and Henkel, all of which said they were co-operating with the investigation. The companies concerned said offices had been raided in a number of EU member states, including Germany, Belgium, Austria, Spain and Holland.

Several of the companies linked to the inquiry also have offices in Britain, and the Office of Fair Trading, the UK competition watchdog, said it was aware of the investigation but refused to say whether it had taken part in the raids this week. The commission also refused to name the countries its investigators had visited.

"Commission officials carried out unannounced inspections at the premises of several producers of consumer detergents such as washing machine and dishwasher detergents and laundry softeners," a spokesman for the commission said. "The commission has reason to believe that the companies concerned may have violated the EC Treaty rules on restrictive business practices and cartels, which prohibit practices such as price-fixing."

A spokeswoman for the Office of Fair Trading last night also declined to comment on whether the inquiry was linked to the UK regulator's own investigation into alleged price-fixing in the household goods sector.

In April, the OFT visited Britain's four biggest supermarket chains, as well as a string of household goods manufacturers, including Unilever, Procter & Gamble, Kimberly-Clark, GlaxoSmithKline and Coca Cola. That investigation, which relates to a number of similar products to the ones at the centre of the commission's probe, is ongoing.

Companies found guilty of price-fixing face sizeable fines. The commission can levy penalties of up to 10 per cent of a company's global sales for each year in which it finds offences have taken place.