Regulators raid chocolate makers in Europe on suspicion of price fixing

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The Independent Online

German investigators have raided the offices of several major confectionery companies amid allegations they fixed the price of chocolate.

Mars, Nestlé, Kraft and Ritter, which have all confirmed they are part of the investigation by the Federal Cartel Office, face multimillion-pound fines if found guilty of the charges.

The investigation, which comes days before Valentine's Day, one of the peak times for chocolate sales, was launched after several of the companies raised their prices by between 10 and 12 per cent within a few weeks of each other, raising the suspicions of the authorities. A further three companies have also received letters informing them they are part of an industry-wide inquiry, although they have not been named.

Competition officials visited the German headquarters of the confectionery companies last Thursday. "We think there was collusion on price rises," said a spokeswoman for the cartel office, adding that the investigation is expected to take several months.

Chocolate-makers said the price rises were due to increasing costs for cocoa, the price of which has jumped 32 per cent in the past year, and sugar, which has risen 22 per cent. Milk costs are also estimated to have risen by a third last year, while the price of nuts has also soared.

A spokesman for Nestlé, which makes Aero and KitKat, said there had been a "worldwide, hefty increase in the price of cocoa". "This naturally leads to the adapting of prices," he said. He added that the company was co-operating with the investigation after the raid on the Swiss company's office in Frankfurt. The US company Kraft, which makes Milka, Tobler-one and Cote D'Or, confirmed its offices in Bremen were searched. The US confectionery giant Mars owns the Snickers, M&M's and Twix brands.

The cartel office alleges that the price rises were even higher than the increase in raw materials. The companies could be fined up to 10 per cent of their annual turnover. This would not be limited to German sales as the parent company is considered responsible for the actions of different divisions, the cartel office said.

The move comes just three months after Canadian authorities launched a similar investigation into the alleged price-fixing of chocolate. The country's Competition Bureau served search warrants on several major chocolate bar-makers but said the investigation could be widened into other types of sweets.