Justice Department sues to block big sugar merger, warning of price hikes and supply chain strains

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  • The Biden administration sued to block a proposed merger of two sugar industry giants, United States Sugar Corporation and Imperial Sugar Co.
  • The Justice Department, led by Attorney General Merrick Garland, argued that the acquisition would raise prices at a time when the global supply chain is already under pressure.
  • President Joe Biden’s first year in the White House has been marked by taking aggressive steps to tackle corporate consolidation, including in the tech and airline industries.

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The Biden administration on Tuesday filed suit to block a proposed merger of the two sugar industry giants, arguing that the acquisition would erode competition and drive up prices at a time when global supply chains are already under pressure.

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NS civil antitrust lawsuit, filed in federal court in Delaware, aims to prevent United States Sugar from buying Imperial Sugar. The corporations rival the “already comfortable” sugar industry, Jonathan Cantor, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division, said in a press release.

“The deal significantly undermines competition at a time when global supply chain challenges already threaten stable access to critical goods and goods,” Cantor said.

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US Sugar is a Delaware corporation that is privately owned and headquartered in Florida. Imperial Sugar is owned by Louis Dreyfus, a global agriculture conglomerate based in the Netherlands. The deal is worth about $315 million.

The companies did not immediately respond to CNBC’s requests for comment on the DOJ lawsuit.

The DOJ’s latest intervention in a major industry deal adds to the Biden administration’s record of insisting on antitrust enforcement. Marks the first year of President Joe Biden in the White House Aggressive steps to counter corporate consolidation, which includes signing a comprehensive executive order seeking to block or limit deals and partnerships in industries ranging from food to publishing to airlines.

Earlier in November, the DOJ filed a lawsuit to block Penguin Random House from acquiring rival Simon & Schuster for about $2.18 billion.

In September the DOJ sued to block a regional partnership between American Airlines and JetBlue Airways, alleging that the alliance would reduce competition, reduce service quality and increase airfares. The carrier, which has argued the partnership would help them compete better against Delta Air Lines and United Airlines, asked a federal judge on Monday to dismiss the lawsuit.

“Strong antitrust enforcement is an essential pillar of the Justice Department’s commitment to ensuring economic opportunity and fairness for all,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a press release Tuesday. “We will not hesitate to challenge anti-competitive mergers that will harm American consumers and businesses alike.”

The DOJ press release said the deal between U.S. Sugar and Imperial Sugar would “leave a substantial portion of refined sugar sales in the Southeast in the hands of just two producers.” “As a result Americans will have to pay more for refined sugar, which is an important input to many foods and beverages,” the DOJ said.

As the world recovers from the coronavirus pandemic and consumer demand picks up, fears of supply chain disruptions and shortages are also mounting in the economy.

The complaint states that if US Sugar acquires Imperial, it will turn over Imperial’s production to United Sugars Corporation, a cooperative that sells sugar produced by US Sugar and three other refiners. The complaint alleges that the deal would leave just two companies, United and Domino’s, in control of about 75% of Chinese sales in the southeast US, “leaving wholesale customers in the region at the mercy of a comfortable monopoly.”

“As a result, fragile supply chains will become more strained, and American households will pay more for sugar and many staple food and beverage products,” the lawsuit states.

“It’s a straightforward case: a merger of two direct competitors that would result in a highly concentrated market and lead to higher prices for a product critical to our nation’s food supply,” the complaint said.

“Simply put, this matter is not a close call.”

— CNBC’s Leslie Joseph

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