The Office of Fair Trading (OFT) has apologised to Morrisons and agreed to pay £100,000 in damages, after the grocer was wrongly accused in a price-fixing inquiry.
The watchdog announced the settlement after Morrisons took legal action over a press release issued in September by the OFT at the same time as a statement of objections against a number of large supermarkets and dairy processors.
The release stated incorrectly that Morrisons was the subject of a provisional finding of infringement in relation to the supply of butter and cheese in 2002 and 2003. It also said that the supermarket had been warned by the OFT previously against anti-competitive behaviour, which had not happened.
In fact, the only allegation relating to Morrisons involved liquid milk products in 2002.
The watchdog said: “The OFT regrets that the press release contained these serious errors and wishes to apologise sincerely to Morrisons for their publication.”
The OFT agreed to pay Morrisons£100,000 in settlement of the defamation action and to pay the supermarket’s costs in relation to the judicial review and defamation actions launched by Morrisons.
The OFT added: “The press release also contained a quotation from Sean Williams of the OFT. The OFT wishes to make clear that nothing in Mr Williams’ quoted remarks was intended to suggest that the OFT, or anyone within the OFT, had concluded that Morrisons was guilty, or would necessarily be found guilty, of price-fixing in relation to the supply of certain liquid milk products in 2002.
“The OFT has not and had not at any earlier stage reached any such conclusion. Nor has the OFT reached any conclusion that Morrisons acted in a manner that it knew to be anti-competitive.”
Supermarkets Asda, Sainsbury’s and Safeway – prior to its takeover by Morrisons – as well as a number of dairies, have admitted price-fixing during 2002 and 2003.
These companies will pay combined fines of more than£120 million, with dairies Robert Wiseman, Dairy Crest and The Cheese Company also found provisionally guilty by the OFT last September.
Tesco and Morrisons are still fighting the OFT’s claims.