In December 2005, the Competition Prosecutors opened an ex officio investigation into the publication by a trade association for veterinarians called Intérêts Vétérinaires – Dierenartsenbelangen (IV-DB) of guidance tariffs in 2004, 2005 and 2006. The tariffs were published in a small booklet entitled “Vademecum”. In order to establish these guidance tariffs, the IV-DB had interviewed a number of veterinarians over the phone as well as at trade fairs, and had then calculated an average of the tariffs on that basis. According to the Competition Prosecutors, these guidance tariffs aimed to harmonise prices. They claimed this had been expressly confirmed by statements of certain representatives of IV-DB in its publications.
In its decision of 15 April 2008, the Council first qualified IV-DB as an association of undertakings and the Vademecum containing the guidance tariffs as a decision of an association of undertakings. It also recalled that the burden of proving all elements of an infringement of the cartel prohibition lies with the competition authorities.
The Council ruled that the publication of guidance tariffs was not aimed at limiting competition for the following reasons. First, the Vademecum clearly mentioned that the tariffs were merely guidance tariffs and therefore not absolutely binding or enforceable. Secondly, the Council stated that there was no proof of a link between the statements by certain representatives of IV-DB with respect to low tariffs on the one hand and the adherence to the guidance tariffs on the other hand. It also held that these statements had to be put into context. The IV-DB representatives had intended to complain about the low tariffs in Belgium compared to other countries and convince the government to regulate tariffs by law. The Council also held that veterinarians had not been incited or compelled by IV-DB to respect the guidance tariffs. Finally, the fact that membership of IV-DB was not mandatory in order to carry out the profession of veterinarian and that the guidance tariffs were not part of the deontological code (and thus without any sanctions in case of breach) confirmed the Council’s conclusion that there was no anticompetitive aim.
In addition, the Council analysed whether the guidance tariffs had had an anticompetitive effect on the Belgian market. In this respect, it ruled that there had been no such actual or potential effect, as the investigation had demonstrated that only a small minority of veterinarians had effectively implemented the guidance tariffs.
This is the second time that the Belgian Competition Authority has scrutinised the veterinarian sector. In August 2007, the Council found that the Belgian Association of Veterinarians, of which membership is mandatory for anyone providing veterinary services in Belgium, had infringed the cartel prohibition by imposing minimum fees for veterinary service.