Just a few weeks after the Federal Trade Commission unveiled its proposed new Green Guides for public comment, environmental consulting firm TerraChoice chimes in with its 2010 report, “Sins of Greenwashing – Home and Family Edition.” In our increasingly green economy, TerraChoice makes a couple unsurprising, if not disappointing, findings. First, using the same survey sample of 24 retailers located in Canada and the United States, TerraChoice found green claims on 4,744 products in 2010, compared to 2,739 in 2009. Clearly, the tidal wave of green marketing in our economy is still on the rise. Second, based on the “seven sins” of misleading green marketing claims defined by the firm, 95% of the green products it examined made some form of false or misleading environmental claim.
The TerraChoice report offers several other interesting insights. TerraChoice found that big box stores do a substantially better job than other retailers when it comes to putting more green products on the shelves, and big box stores do a better job of finding and selling products that are backed up with bona fide green claims. Another interesting finding addresses the problem of false and bogus green certification labels. TerraChoice notes that roughly a third of the greenwashing sins were based on false certifications. TerraChoice even found meaningless certification marks for sale on the internet, including one titled “Green – Certified Environmentally Conscious,” which TerraChoice claims can be licensed by any interested manufacturer or retailer for only $15.
TerraChoice has made a name for itself over the past few years issuing annual “Greenwashing” reports that identify false and misleading green claims on consumer products. TerraChoice is of course not a government agency, but it bases its “seven sins of greenwashing” on the FTC’s Green Guides, rules issued by the Competition Bureau of Canada, and the International Standards Organization (ISO) standard for environmental marketing, ISO Standard 14021. TerraChoice administrates the “Ecologo” program, which was originally developed by the Canadian government, and in August of this year the firm was acquired by Underwriters Laboratories, which offers its own “UL Environment” certification program.
TerraChoice is certainly not a disinterested party in the green labeling game. The organization has a financial interest in selling its consulting services and in the success of the Ecologo and UL Environment certification programs. Given this bias, it’s probably safe to say that not all of the products that TerraChoice finds guilty of greenwashing (95% of all reviewed products) could be successfully challenged by the FTC, state attorneys general, or consumers. That said, the 2010 report is a good indicator of the greenwashing problem that pervades environmental marketing today. More importantly, the efforts of TerraChoice, as well as regulators like the FTC and interested consumer groups, demonstrate that interested stakeholders take green marketing claims very seriously – unlike many other marketing messages, which are tolerated as mere “puffery.” The growth of green marketing claims may be rapid, but scrutiny and regulation of such claims appear to be catching up.
In an unfair competition suit under 15 U.S.C. § 1125, the king of the two-ounce energy shot, 5-Hour Energy, is suing the makers of 8-Hour Energy in the Eastern District of Michigan, claiming that 8-Hour Energy falsely associates itself with 5-Hour Energy. 8-Hour Energy has tried to strike back with a monopolization claim, arguing that 5-Hour Energy has engaged in a number of anticompetitive tactics to drive away competitors like 8-Hour Energy, and 6-Hour Energy, which 5-Hour Energy sued in 2008.
Anyone who has recently set foot in a convenience store or watched late night cable television knows how valuable the energy drink business has become. To get an idea of how this market has grown, take a look at the wall of energy drinks displayed at the screamingenergy.com product review web site. Perhaps the most valuable spot in that market is in the two-ounce “energy shot” space, on the counter next to the cash register, where customers are willing to pay $3.50 for two ounces of an elixir that will “help you feel sharp and alert.” (By comparison, a consumer will seldom pay more than 99 cents for a 12 ounce can of caffeinated cola.) And the consensus is that 5-Hour Energy dominates this category.
The 8-Hour Energy defense team may have a good argument that 5-Hour Energy is the king of the convenience store counter, but the Eastern District of Michigan issued an Order last week slapping down 8-Hour Energy’s monopolization claim. 8-Hour Energy argued that 5-Hour Energy engages in anticompetitive tactics to control the market, but failed to convince the court that those tactics actually harm 8-Hour Energy. For example, the court noted that anything 5-Hour Energy did to exclude 6-Hour Energy from the market couldn’t have harmed 8-Hour Energy. Ultimately, 8-Hour Energy should be able to argue that any anticompetitive conduct is relevant to prove that 5-Hour Energy has harmed competition – this may be an issue that 8-Hour Energy can exploit on appeal.
The court’s order provides a good example of the risks associated with raising antitrust counterclaims. Here, the Eastern District of Michigan dismissed 8-Hour Energy’s monopolization counterclaim for failure to convincingly plead the claim. If 8-Hour Energy somehow revives the claim, the next hurdle will be definition of the relevant market. Is there an exclusive market of 2-ounce energy drinks? If Red Bull, Coca Cola, or coffee are reasonable substitute “energy drinks,” 8-Hour Energy’s monopolization case doesn’t have a chance.
It’s been a couple weeks since chicken farmers and processors met with Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Attorney General Eric Holder in Normal, Alabama to discuss competition in the poultry industry. The May 21 USDA/DOJ workshop was the second such meeting conducted by the agencies in their quest to review enforcement policy relating to competition in agriculture. The meeting certainly highlighted the fact that there is debate among stakeholders in the industry about the state of competition, healthy or not.
Several sources noted with great interest that Christine Varney, DOJ’s Assistant Attorney General in charge of the Antitrust Division, asked one poultry farmer to call her directly if he experienced intimidation from poultry processors. The farmer declared that he was concerned to appear in public speaking about the way poultry “integrators” contract with poultry farmers like himself, who actually raise chicks into broilers. The recently published transcript of the May 21 proceedings also contains a farmer’s anonymous statement that was read to the government lawyers by a farmer willing to speak on his colleague’s behalf.
From a policy perspective, there was more to the May 21 workshop than fear and loathing. For example, Assistant Attorney General Varney asked about the prevalence of farmer cooperatives in the industry – to which farmers on the panel replied that poultry farmers do not generally work together in cooperatives. Large poultry integrators, therefore, deal with poultry farmers on a one-on-one basis. And as one can read in the transcript, poultry farmers present in Normal, Alabama generally felt that the large poultry “integrators” have too much power over them. Outside the context of the workshop, Poultry farmers recently sued processors for their alleged unfair practices, without success. On May 10, a federal appeals court upheld the dismissal of claims against Tyson Foods, because the poultry farmers failed to allege that the challenged tactics actually harmed competition – i.e., reduced output or increased prices.
That brings us back to Assistant Attorney General Varney’s question about the prevalence of farmer cooperatives. Because the Capper-Volstead Act enables farmers to band together and jointly negotiate with the large buyers without violating Section One of the Sherman Act, farmers could theoretically deal with poultry processors through a collective or cooperative organization.
Leading up to the meeting, large-scale poultry producers prepared themselves for criticism from farmers. The National Chicken Council released a report by an agricultural economist that describes healthy, vigorous competition in the poultry industry. And while chicken farmers at the workshop complained about the “power” of large poultry integrators, the National Chicken Council report cited a 2001 study that found farmers were generally happy to raise chickens for integrators. Interestingly, the report also reviewed government reports that show much higher levels of concentration among beef and pork processors relative to the poultry industry, and the report showed modest declines in retail prices for chicken products over the past 18 years.
What’s the takeaway from this round of the USDA/DOJ meetings? It’s hard to say. As a general rule, the antitrust enforcement agencies hate to argue with falling consumer prices. But the transcript reveals certain concerns about the power of poultry integrators over the farmers. Though the government’s listening tour clearly shows that government lawyers from USDA and DOJ are listening, it’s not clear yet what they are thinking. Watch for more clues at the June 25 workshop in Madison, Wisconsin, when the DOJ and USDA will be examining competition in the dairy industry.
In 2008, the DOJ and 16 states challenged the merger of JBS and the National Beef Packing Company, leading the parties to abandon the deal. In its amended complaint filed against the transaction, the DOJ opposed the merger, claiming that it would have combined two of the four largest beef packing companies in the U.S. (“Post merger, over 80% of the nation’s fed cattle packing capacity would be controlled by a three-firm oligopoly. . . .”).
The DOJ’s concern about concentration in the meat packing industry apparently continues. As is often the case, a merger investigation educates regulators, and after the investigation concludes, the government’s lawyers maintain an interest in the industry. In March, the DOJ Assistant Attorney General for the Antitrust Division, Christine Varney, declared that in the near future we will see “unprecedented cooperation and collaboration between [the DOJ] and the USDA,” in her remarks at the first DOJ/USDA competition workshop, held in Ankeny Iowa. Varney noted that collaboration will include “taking full advantage of the authority that’s delegated to us in the Packer[s] and Stockyard[s] Act,” a 1921 statute that specifically addresses competition in the meat packing industry.
Earlier this month, the Associated Press reported that officials from the USDA’s Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration (”GIPSA”) are speaking to cattle ranchers about competition and pricing in the meat packing industry. CEO of the Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund (“R-CALF”), Bill Bullard, is quoted in the article, noting that ranchers in his organization have been frequently meeting with USDA officials in recent months. Ranchers argue that the country’s four biggest meat packing companies (Tyson Foods, JBS, Cargill, and National Beef) benefit from “buyer power.” They claim that buyer power drives down prices for the cattle that they raise. Economists would argue that such buyer power ultimately benefits customers.
In any event, does all this talk mean that aggressive enforcement of the Packers and Stockyards Act (to the benefit of ranchers) is on the horizon? A USDA official quoted in the Associated Press article suggests that may be true, corroborating the Assistant Attorney General’s comments above (“[W]hat we’re doing at GIPSA now is trying to . . . enforce the Packers and Stockyards Act . . . .”).
The DOJ and USDA are spending this entire year evaluating antitrust and competition policy in the agriculture industry, starting with a series of public workshops. There will be a workshop on the poultry industry on May 21, in Normal, Alabama. On August 27, the agencies will host a workshop in Fort Collins, Colorado, addressing “concentration in livestock markets, buyer power and enforcement of the Packers and Stockyards Act.”
By Guest Blogger Jay Eckhardt
On April 29, the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced that it had obtained a criminal indictment against the former CEO of SK Foods, Scott Salyer, for his participation in a conspiracy to fix prices and rig bids in the market for tomato paste. (SK Foods is now owned by Olam International, of Singapore.) This followed on the heels of a prior indictment against Mr. Salyer, obtained in February, for fraud, obstruction of justice, and violations of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO). Mr. Salyer was arrested by the FBI in February and has been held in federal custody since his arrest.
While entering a guilty plea is frequently the most prudent tactic for executives charged in criminal antitrust cases, when the stakes are high it may make more sense to fight back. In this case, Mr. Salyer has challenged the indictments against him and pleaded not guilty to the price fixing and bid rigging charges this week.
Government lawyers generally tend to prefer to shoot their fish in a barrel – which is to say, they seek cases that they think they will win. Of course juries didn’t agree with DOJ lawyers in 2008, when a hung jury refused to convict executive Gary Swanson for his role in a conspiracy to fix prices for dynamic random access memory chips (DRAM), and in 2007, when a jury found that the Stora Enso company did not conspire to fix prices for coated magazine paper. Mr. Salyer apparently hopes to join the successful minority that has avoided prosecution.
But what about the tomato processing industry? The LA Times reports that DOJ has been focused on bid rigging, corruption, and bribery investigations in the industry since 2007. With only five companies processing 95% of the tomatoes grown in the U.S., the industry is fertile ground for federal prosecutors, as the concentrated group of close competitors has turned out to be too friendly. Who are the victims? They are actually some of the largest American food companies: Kraft, Safeway, Frito-Lay, B&G Foods, and others. Government investigations have shown that these companies purchased tomato paste and other processed tomato products at inflated prices. In some cases, processors also lied about the contents of their products, mislabeling products at higher “grades” in order to get higher prices.
In the tomato investigation, Mr. Salyer is the first to fight his conviction. The first big conviction came from a broker for SK Foods who pleaded guilty in December 2008. According to the LA Times, DOJ has secured guilty pleas from at least nine individuals in the tomato processing industry. The same pattern emerged in the DOJ’s DRAM investigation. While Mr. Swanson avoided his prosecution, 14 others involved in the DRAM price fixing conspiracy pleaded guilty, and the DOJ secured fines and penalties of over $700 million from individuals and the corporations they worked for. With a little luck (and perhaps a misstep by the prosecution) Mr. Salyer may evade conviction. It appears that the industry as a whole will not be so lucky. The government, and the tomato processors’ customers, will likely pursue claims for some time.