Japanese Vitamin Firms Fined

Three Japanese companies are the latest to face criminal fines for plotting to raise and fix the prices of vitamins used in nearly every American home.

The Justice Department announced Thursday that the companies had agreed to plead guilty and pay $137 million in fines for taking part in a worldwide conspiracy to control the prices of vitamins.

"This conspiracy artificially inflated the cost to virtually every American of such everyday necessities as milk, bread, orange juice and cereal, which were fortified with vitamins produced by these companies," said Joel I. Klein, assistant attorney general in charge of antitrust activities.

The companies fined were:

Takeda Chemical Industries of Osaka, $72 million for conspiring to fix the price and allocate the sales of vitamins B2 and C.

Eisai Co. of Tokyo, $40 million for conspiring to fix the price and allocate sales of vitamin E.

Daiichi Pharmaceutical Co. of Tokyo, $25 million for fixing the price and allocating the sales of vitamin B5.

In May, the Justice department announced a $500 million fine to be paid by F. Hoffmann-La Roche Ltd., a Swiss pharmaceutical company, in the vitamin price-fixing investigation. That is the largest federal criminal fine ever imposed in any type of case.

In addition, the German firm, BASF AG, agreed to pay a $225 million fine for its role in the conspiracy to increase vitamin prices in the United States and around the world.

And in March, Swiss vitamin manufacturer Lonza AG and five U.S. executives agreed to plead guilty to participating in the global vitamin plot. Lonza agreed to pay a $10.5 million fine.

Several of the companies also are defendants in a civil suit brought by the buyers of bulk vitamins.

Overall, the department said, the cartel boosted the price of more than $5 billion in products sold in the United States between January 1990 and this February.

Involved were vitamins A, B2, B5, C, E and beta carotene, the ones most often taken as pills or added to enrich foods.

Officials said the case was broken open when another conspirator, Rhone-Poulenc, SA, a French pharmaceutical company, began cooperating with investigators. Rhone-Poulenc was accepted into the antitrust division's leniency program, which protects companies from criminal prosecution if they voluntarily report their involvement in a crime before prosecutors learn of their role.

The department also announced that the Japanese firm Takeda has agreed to cooperate with its investigators looking into the food flavor enhancers industry.

Written By Randolph E. Schmid