Analysis of Proposed Consent Order

To Aid Public Comment


The Federal Trade Commission has accepted, subject to final approval, an agreement containing a proposed Consent Order from McCormick & Company, Incorporated ("McCormick"), the world's largest spice company, that is designed to resolve claims, set forth in the accompanying Complaint, that McCormick discriminated in the pricing of its products to certain competing supermarket purchasers in violation of Section 2(a) of the Robinson-Patman Act amendments to the Clayton Act, 15 U.S.C. 13(a). The Consent Order requires McCormick to refrain from unlawfully discriminating in the prices at which it sells its products to competing purchasers in the supermarket channel. In addition, in those instances in which McCormick believes that its pricing is lawful because its prices were offered to meet competition from a competing supplier, the Consent Order requires McCormick, for a period of ten years, to contemporaneously document the information on which it bases its entitlement to the statutory "meeting competition" defense.

The proposed Consent Order has been placed on the public record for 30 days so that the Commission may receive comments from interested persons. Comments received during this period will become part of the public record. After 30 days, the Commission will again review the agreement and the comments received, and will decide whether it should withdraw from the agreement or make final the agreement's proposed Consent Order.

McCormick's Business. McCormick, with its principal office and place of business in Sparks, Maryland, has been engaged for many years in the production, distribution and sale of spice and seasoning products for resale. Its products sold through supermarkets include core and gourmet spice lines, dry seasoning mixes, and so-called "competitive seasonings" such as meat tenderizers, monosodium glutamate (MSG), and garlic and other spice blends. Respondent sells these products under the brand names McCormick, Schilling, Fifth Seasons, Spice Classics, Select Seasons, Mojave, Spice Trend, Royal Trading, Crescent, McCormick Schilling, La Cochina De McCormick, McCormick Collection and Old Bay, among others. With 1998 retail sales of $623.7 million in the Americas, McCormick is the largest supplier of spice and seasoning products in the United States, and claims to be "the world's largest spice company."

Among those firms that supply core or gourmet spice lines for sale in supermarkets in the United States, McCormick is by far the leading firm, accounting for the majority of such sales nationally. Since the early 1990's, McCormick has faced competition in such sales from only one other national firm, Burns Philp Food Incorporated, and several much smaller independent regional or local firms. These circumstances, combined with the superior brand recognition of McCormick products, mean that supermarkets that purchase McCormick products have relatively few alternative sources for equivalent products from other suppliers at comparable prices and terms.

McCormick's Pricing. During the period pertinent to the Complaint, McCormick had a single national price list for its products sold to direct customers, whether retail supermarkets or wholesalers reselling to independent supermarkets. McCormick modified this price list from time to time, to reflect changes in McCormick's costs to manufacture particular products, among other reasons. However, relatively few McCormick customers paid the list price. Instead, McCormick commonly entered into written or unwritten supply agreements with customers that provided substantial discounts off the list prices. These discounts took a variety of forms, including cash payments at the commencement of the supply agreement, free goods, off-invoice discounts, cash rebates, performance funds and other financial benefits that effectively reduced the net price of McCormick's products. Typically, McCormick individually negotiated with particular customers the amount of discounts and payments; the aggregate percentage of discounts and benefits provided to a particular customer was commonly known as the "allowance offer" or the "deal rate." McCormick's aggregate discounts and financial benefits to some customers were substantially greater than to some other competing customers.

Frequently the McCormick discounts included up-front cash payments that resembled the payments sometimes called "slotting allowances" in the supermarket industry. However, the McCormick discounts and payments typically were for all or a substantial part of the existing McCormick product line and typically were not incentives to accept new McCormick products. McCormick's supply agreements with customers commonly include provisions that, as is sometimes seen with slotting allowances, restrict supermarket customers' ability to deal in the products of competing spice suppliers. Such provisions commonly require that the customer allocate to McCormick the large majority (as much as 90%) of the shelf space devoted to spice products.

Price Discrimination. The Complaint alleges that in the period from at least 1994 to the present, McCormick has on no fewer than five instances discriminated in price by providing different deal rates consisting of preferential up-front "slotting"-type payments or allowances, discounts, rebates, deductions, free goods, or other financial benefits. Through such discriminatory terms of sale, McCormick sold its products to the favored purchasers at a lower net price than to the disfavored purchasers, in violation of Section 2(a) of the Robinson-Patman Act amendments to the Clayton Act, 15 U.S.C. 13(a).

The Complaint alleges that, in each instance of discrimination, McCormick made contemporaneous sales of McCormick products of like grade and quality to a favored and a disfavored purchaser; the disfavored purchaser competed with the favored purchaser which resold respondent's products at the same level of distribution; and at least one of the discriminatory sales by McCormick involved commodities that crossed state lines. The Complaint also alleges that each of the spice and seasoning products that make up McCormick's product line is a commodity within the meaning of the statute.

The Complaint alleges that McCormick's price discrimination threatened injury at the "secondary line" level of competition, that is, at the level of the favored and disfavored purchasers. It alleges that each instance of discrimination involved a substantial price difference over a substantial period of time between competing purchasers in markets where profit margins are low and competition is keen. These circumstances give rise to an inference of competitive harm within the meaning of the statute, pursuant to the reasoning of the Supreme Court in Federal Trade Commission v. Morton Salt Co., 334 U.S. 37, 50-51 (1948), and subsequent cases. While that inference may not be sufficient by itself in some circumstances to warrant bringing a case, in this instance the inference is strengthened by McCormick's position as the largest supplier of spice and seasoning products in the United States and by the fact that McCormick typically demanded that customers allocate to McCormick the large majority of the space devoted to spice products -- in some cases 90% of all shelf space devoted to packaged spices, herbs, seasonings and flavorings of the kinds offered by McCormick. As alleged in the Complaint, disfavored purchasers consequently had few, if any, alternative sources from which to purchase comparable goods at prices and terms equivalent to those which McCormick provided to the favored purchasers.

The Complaint also alleges that the favorable prices and terms McCormick provided to the favored purchasers were not justified by good faith attempts to meet the equally low price of a competitor; nor were the favorable prices justified by cost savings associated with doing business with the favored retailer. The instances of price discrimination were therefore not within the scope of either the statutory "meeting competition" or "cost justification" defenses established by Sections 2(a) and (b) of the Robinson-Patman Act amendments to the Clayton Act, 15 U.S.C. 13(a) and (b).

The Order Provisions. The Consent Order provides relief for the violations alleged in the Complaint. The Order applies to McCormick's sale of products, broadly defined to include spices, seasonings and other products used to season or flavor foods, packaged for sale to consumers. The Consent Order does not apply to products packaged for sale to food service or industrial customers, which are beyond the scope of the conduct at issue in the Complaint. Order, I.B. The Order applies to McCormick's sales to persons or entities that purchase McCormick products for resale. Order, I.C.

The principal relief is contained in Paragraph II of the Consent Order, which requires that McCormick cease and desist from price-discriminating, within the meaning of Section 2(a) of the Robinson-Patman Act, by selling its products to any purchaser at a net price higher than that charged to any competing purchaser, where the discrimination may cause competitive harm as contemplated by the statutory language. "Net Price" is defined as the list price of McCormick Products less advances, allowances, discounts, rebates, deductions, free goods and other financial benefits provided by McCormick and related to such products. Order, I.D.

The inclusion of competitive harm language in Paragraph II ensures that the remedy established by the Consent Order is not over-broad and does not enjoin instances of price discrimination otherwise lawful under the statute. This paragraph also includes a proviso that makes applicable under the Order the statutory defenses set forth in Sections 2(a) and (b) of the Robinson-Patman Act, thus accomplishing explicitly what otherwise would be implicit pursuant to the Supreme Court's decision in Federal Trade Commission v. Ruberoid Co., 343 U.S. 470, 475-78 (1952).

As further relief, Paragraph III orders that for each instance in which McCormick wishes to avail itself of the "meeting competition" defense of Section 2(b) of the Robinson Patman Act,(1) McCormick is required to contemporaneously document all information on which it bases its entitlement to the defense, and to retain such documentation in its files for five years after the lower price made to meet competition is no longer effective. This provision is "fencing-in" relief(2) that should ensure the existence of a reliable evidentiary basis in future instances where McCormick invokes the defense.

In addition to these principal relief provisions, the Consent Order requires that McCormick distribute a copy of the Order to all officers, employees, brokers, and agents of its operating divisions involved in the sale of products covered by the order, and in the future to new employees, brokers, and agents. Order, IV. McCormick is required to inform the Commission of corporate changes that may affect its compliance obligations under the Order (Order, V), and to file reports concerning its compliance under the Order (id., VI). The term of the Order is twenty years (id., VII); the obligations under III to document the "meeting competition" defense and under VI to file annual compliance reports extend for ten and five years, respectively.

The purpose of this analysis is to facilitate public comment on the proposed Consent Order, and it is not intended to constitute an official interpretation of the agreement and proposed Consent Order or to modify in any way their terms.

1. Section 2(b) of the Robinson-Patman Act permits a seller to rebut a prima-facie case of price discrimination by showing that his lower price "was made in good faith to meet an equally low price of a competitor." 15 U.S.C. 13(b).

2. See Federal Trade Commission v. National Lead Co., 352 U.S. 419, 430 (1957).