On April 2007, the Commission fined the Dutch brewers Heineken, Grolsch and Bavaria a total of €273 million for operating a cartel on the beer market in The Netherlands, in clear violation of EC Treaty rules that outlaw restrictive business practices.

Between at least 1996 and 1999, four brewers (Heineken, Grolsch, Bavaria and Inbev) held numerous unofficial meetings, during which they coordinated prices and price increases of beer in The Netherlands.

After the Commission, on its own initiative, uncovered a cartel on the Belgian beer market, Inbev provided information under the auspices of the Commission’s leniency policy that it was also involved in cartels in other European countries.

The four brewers coordinated prices, and price increases of beer in The Netherlands, both in the ontrade segment of the market (or “Horeca” market) and the off-trade market segment (sales through supermarkets), including private label beer. Private label beer is either sold under a supermarket chain’s own brand, or under a brand name unsupported by advertising.

In the on-trade market segment the brewers coordinated the rebates granted to pubs and bars, which are the main element of pricing, using the “sliding scale”. Moreover, there is proof that they occasionally coordinated other commercial conditions offered to individual customers in the on-trade segment in The Netherlands, and engaged in customer allocation, both in the on-trade and the offtrade segment.

The Commission has evidence that in all four brewery groups high-ranking management (such as board members, the managing director and national sales managers) participated in the cartel meetings and discussions. There is also evidence that the companies were aware that their behaviour was illegal and took measures to avoid detection, such as using a panoply of code names and abbreviations to refer to their unofficial meetings and holding these meetings in hotels and restaurants.

These practices are very serious infringement of EC Treaty anti-trust rules. The fines take account of the size of the markets for the products, the duration of the cartels and the size of the firms involved.

The Commission recognises that the procedure in the present case, which exceeded seven years since the inspections, has been unduly long. For these reasons, the amounts of the fines have been reduced. [18 April 2007]