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Bangers and cash: Sausage makers fight ‘cartel’ fine in Düsseldorf court

Sausage makers in Germany head to court on Tuesday to fight back against a record anti-trust fine for years of alleged price fixing in a sizzling scandal involving the nation's favourite food.

Bangers and cash: Sausage makers fight 'cartel' fine in Düsseldorf court
Meat products at a butcher in Bonn. Photo: DPA.

The Federal Cartel Office slapped a €338 million fine on a string of German sausage producers in 2014, accusing them of colluding for decades to squeeze higher prices out of meat lovers.

But the powerful industry hit back with many of the accused exploiting a legal loophole to escape the penalty, leaving just a small group of companies on the hook for a fraction of the bill.

Of the 22 firms and 33 individuals initially fined – including big name brands Herta and Böklunder – just four sausage producers will appear in the Düsseldorf regional court to contest their share of the punishment – some €22.6 million.

They are Heidemark Maesterkreis, Wiesenhof, Franz Wiltmann and Rügenwalder Mühle as well as five company officials.

They deny accusations of belonging to a so-called “sausage cartel” and refuse to pay up.

Eleven other firms have accepted penalties to the tune of some €70 million.

But the remaining companies made use of a legal sleight of hand and simply restructured to make nearly €240 million of the total bill disappear.

Under the loophole – dubbed the “sausage gap” – parent companies could not be held liable for the fines of a subsidiary if that subsidiary ceased to exist.

The legal trickery ended earlier this year with a change in German competition law.

Wolfgang Ingold, the chief executive of Franz Wiltmann, told industry publication Lebensmittel Zeitung he had been advised to employ the same tactic.

“But we have nothing to hide and we want to see that confirmed by a court,” he was quoted as saying.

Wurst-case scenario

The legal action is not without risks.

In a worst-case scenario, the court could impose an even heftier fine if it believes the accused have been telling porkies.

A verdict is not expected until May at the earliest.

The “sausage cartel” claims stunned Germans when they first came to light in a country known for its fondness of bratwurst.

Although consumption has fallen slightly in recent years, Germans still eat on average 60 kilos of meat annually, with sausages and processed meats making up around half that figure – equivalent to a hot dog a day.

The cartel was nicknamed the “Atlantic group” after the Hamburg hotel where the first meeting was held to discuss pricing in the early 1980s, according to the FCO anti-trust watchdog.

Acting on an anonymous tip-off, the FCO found that the companies kept in regular touch and colluded to force German food retailers to pay higher prices for their pork and poultry products.

The “wurst” scandal capped a record year for the FCO, coming hot on the heels of €280 million fine imposed on three large sugar producers for anti-competitive behaviour.

Also in 2014, more than 10 breweries were fined over €300 million for fixing beer prices.

The office showed its teeth again on Monday, when it handed a €13 million fine to tugboat operators Fairplay, Bugsier and Petersen & Alpers for conspiring to divvy up assignments at German ports.

A fourth colluding company managed to escape punishment by turning in the others.

COURT

Why an ‘old’ man is taking on German nightclubs’ door policies in court

Bouncers at German nightclubs are legendary for their reluctance to let too many people through the door. A Munich man is now taking one club to court for turning him away based on his age.

Why an ‘old’ man is taking on German nightclubs' door policies in court
Inside a night club in Berlin. Photo: DPA

In a case that could have an impact on clubs up and down the country, 47-year-old Nils Kratzer is challenging a nightclub’s door policy in the Federal Court in Karlsruhe on Thursday, arguing that a bouncer’s decision to turn him away at the door was discriminatory.

The incident occurred when Kratzer tried to get into an open air club night on the Praterinsel, a small island on the river Isar in Munich in 2017.

“I’ve never had anyone tell me to my face that I’m too old for a festival,” Kratzer said before the hearing. “On the contrary, I’ve often gone to festivals nationwide with my friends in the past and all ages have been represented.”

READ ALSO: ‘Alone Together’: How I had an unexpected night out at a German online bar

The club makes no bones about the fact that it told its bouncers to discriminate at the door, but argues that this was based on “optics” and not on age. It argues that, given that there was only space for 1,500 guests, it needed to discriminate on some grounds.

If Kratzer were to win the case, which he is basing on anti-discrimination laws introduced in 2006, it would force all German night clubs to review their door policies, as a ruling by a federal court sets a legal precedent.

But Kratzer has already failed to convince a Munich city court and a Bavarian state court of his case. At the Munich city court, he called his younger girlfriend to testify in order to establish his youthfulness.

Nils Kratzer. Photo: DPA

He also complained that Munich clubs have a culture of discrimination at their doors, saying one had turned him away for being a man, while he had also witnessed people being turned away based on their skin colour.

“Not all unequal treatment is discrimination,” argues Sandra Warden from the German Hotel and Restaurant Association. “Event organisers are free to decide whom they let in. The host’s right to decide is protected in our country.”

Warden said that clubs often discriminate based on age, such as at Ü-30 parties, ones where only people over the age of 30 are allowed to enter.

READ ALSO: German court declares techno to be music

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