DISSENTING STATEMENT OF COMMISSIONERS ORSON SWINDLE
File No. 961-0050
We respectfully dissent from the Commission's decision to accept a consent agreement with McCormick & Company, Inc. ("McCormick") to resolve allegations that the company violated the Robinson-Patman Act. We recognize that the majority sincerely believes that this case will clarify a controversial statute and properly circumscribe its application. We are concerned, however, that this case will have precisely the opposite effect.
McCormick is the largest American supplier of spices to grocery stores, with more than 2,000 contracts(1) that account for a majority of spice sales in the United States. (Complaint ¶ 5). During the past decade, McCormick's main competitor has been Burns Philp Food Incorporated ("Burns Philp"). In the early 1990s, Burns Philp commenced a price war in which both it and McCormick offered increased discounts and other payments to try to win the business of grocery stores.(2) When the price war ended, McCormick remained the dominant spice supplier in the United States, and Burns Philp's ability to compete may have been impaired.(3)
A supplier may violate Section 2(a) of the Robinson-Patman Act amendments to the Clayton Act, 15 U.S.C. § 13(a), if it engages in price discrimination that causes so-called "primary-line" injury. Primary-line injury under the statute occurs when a difference in price causes harm to competition between suppliers. A case predicated on primary-line injury to Burns Philp or other suppliers of spices would require proof that the discriminatory prices that McCormick charged grocery stores were below cost and that McCormick had a reasonable prospect of recouping its losses. See Brooke Group Ltd. v. Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., 509 U.S. 209 (1993). In other words, primary-line injury to suppliers is actionable only when there is a threat of ultimate injury to buyers. The Commission's complaint does not allege that McCormick engaged in price discrimination that caused primary-line injury to suppliers such as Burns Philp.
Instead, after more than three years of investigation and the commitment of substantial resources, the majority of the Commission has alleged that McCormick engaged in price discrimination that caused "secondary-line" injury, i.e., harm to competition between buyers. Specifically, out of McCormick's more than 2,000 contracts, the complaint alleges that in five instances McCormick charged higher prices to certain grocery stores than it charged to their competitors. (Complaint ¶ 12). The higher prices that the disfavored grocery stores paid McCormick for spices allegedly harmed their ability to compete against other grocery stores for customers. (Id. ¶ 19).
The majority statement conveys the impression that there was actual secondary-line injury in this case. But the Commission does not rely on direct evidence of secondary-line injury to the disfavored grocery stores. Rather, the Commission relies on the so-called "Morton Salt inference" of competitive harm. (Id. ¶ 17). For more than 50 years, courts have used the Morton Salt inference that "injury to competition is established prima facie by proof of a substantial price discrimination between competing purchasers over time."(4) In essence, the Morton Salt inference permits a court to infer injury to a disfavored purchaser from a persistent and substantial discriminatory price in a market where profit margins are low and competition is keen, and then to infer injury to competition from the injury to the disfavored purchaser.
We question whether the facts in this case support the application of the Morton Salt inference. The Robinson-Patman Act was primarily intended to prevent price discrimination in favor of large buyers at the expense of small buyers.(5) When a small buyer pays more than a large buyer for an item in an industry with low profit margins and keen competition, the Morton Salt inference may make sense. In such circumstances, it is reasonable to infer that the purchasing power of the large buyer will cause the price discrimination to be repeated across many items, with consequent competitive injury to the small buyer.
The complaint does not allege that the favored grocery stores were larger than the disfavored grocery stores(6) or that they purchased more spices from McCormick. Since the favored stores here were not necessarily purchasing larger quantities of spices than the disfavored stores, it is unlikely that McCormick granted lower prices to the favored grocery stores because of their buying power. In fact, the most plausible explanation for the lower prices granted in the five instances alleged in the complaint is that they were the almost fortuitous and incidental result of McCormick's responses during its price war with Burns Philp. If the favored stores were not accorded lower spice prices because of their buying power, there is little reason to believe that the favored stores generally would receive lower prices from the suppliers of the thousands of products sold in the typical grocery store. It follows that it is unlikely that the ability of the disfavored grocery stores to compete with favored stores would be harmed - the underlying rationale for use of the Morton Salt inference.
The Analysis to Aid Public Comment emphasizes that the Commission is not relying on the Morton Salt inference by itself to support bringing a case. Analysis of Proposed Consent Order to Aid Public Comment at 4. The Analysis explains that the use of the Morton Salt inference in this case is particularly appropriate because McCormick is the largest supplier of spices in the United States and because the company typically demanded that grocery stores allocate to McCormick a large majority of the shelf space they devoted to spices. Id.; see Complaint ¶¶ 6, 10, 18. Although we share the majority's apparent view that the public interest generally would be better served if the Commission did not bring Robinson-Patman cases based only on the Morton Salt inference, the majority has not identified additional facts that warranted bringing this case.
McCormick's alleged market power as a supplier and its alleged discriminatory prices may have harmed the ability of Burns Philp and other suppliers to compete with McCormick. But this does not make it any more plausible that McCormick's alleged discriminatory prices harmed the ability of the disfavored grocery stores to compete with the favored grocery stores.
In the long run, if McCormick's pricing has harmed the ability of Burns Philp or other suppliers to compete, the loss of alternative suppliers would harm both the disfavored grocery stores and the favored grocery stores (once their present contracts with McCormick expire). A loss of alternative suppliers is a classic consequence of primary-line injury, but such a loss does not necessarily have a differential impact on buyers that will cause secondary-line injury -- the relevant level of commerce in this case.(7)
We recognize that there has been much controversy over the years concerning the use of the Morton Salt inference and that the inference has not been uniformly applied.(8) Overall, the concern has been that the inference makes violations too easy to prove.(9) It is laudable that the majority has tried to limit the use of the Morton Salt inference. We do not believe, however, that evidence of supplier market power justifies bringing cases in which the Morton Salt inference is used as the basis to prove competitive harm among buyers.(10) Because the majority has no other basis on which to show secondary-line competitive injury in this case, we dissent.(11)
1. See McCormick & Company, Inc., Press Release, McCormick Signs Settlement Agreement with the Federal Trade Commission at 2 (Feb. 3, 2000), (McCormick has "more than 2,200 customer contracts").
2. Anthony Hughes, Burns Philp Was Inept, Says ASIC, The Age at 2 (Mar. 11, 1999).
3. Id. ("Inadequate financial reporting to the board of directors and its failure to question overstated valuations were largely behind the near-collapse of the food group Burns Philp & Co., a report by the Australian Securities and Investments Commission has found.").
4. Falls City Indus., Inc. v. Vanco Beverage, Inc., 460 U.S. 428, 435 (1983) (citing Federal Trade Commission v. Morton Salt Co., 334 U.S. 37, 46, 50-51 (1948)).
5. In enacting the Robinson-Patman amendments, the Congress addressed the concern that large buyers could secure a competitive advantage over small buyers solely because of the large buyers' quantity purchasing ability. H.R. Rep. No. 2287, 74th Cong., 2d Sess. 7 (1936); S. Rep. No. 1502, 74th Cong., 2d Sess. 4-6 (1936).
6. To the extent that the majority tries to suggest that the disfavored stores are "mom-and-pop"operations, in fact only one of the disfavored stores could be so characterized; the rest of the disfavored stores are all large or relatively large grocery store chains.
7. We do not suggest that market power of the supplier is irrelevant in a Robinson-Patman Act case - in fact, it is likely to be present in all cases of economic price discrimination. However, supplier market power is not dispositive of whether secondary-line injury is likely to have occurred. Our agreement with the majority that McCormick is the dominant spice seller does not overcome the lack of proof of secondary-line injury in this case.
8. See ABA Section of Antitrust Law, Antitrust Law Developments 450-51 (4th ed. 1997).
9. See, e.g., LaRue, Robinson-Patman Act in the Twenty-First Century: Will the Morton Salt Rule Be Retired?, 48 S.M.U.L. Rev. 1917 (1995).
10. As noted above, McCormick's alleged discriminatory prices were offered during a price war with its main competitor. We assume without deciding that a "meeting competition" defense under the Robinson-Patman Act would not have insulated McCormick from liability.
11. We do recognize that the proposed narrowly circumscribed order would be appropriate in a proper secondary-line case.