German Wurst-case scenario

German Wurst-case scenario

The Federal Cartel Office slapped a 338 million Euro fine on a string of German sausage producers in 2014, accusing them of colluding for decades to squeeze higher prices out of meat lovers. But the powerful industry hit back with many of the accused exploiting a legal loophole to escape the penalty, leaving just a small group of companies on the hook for a fraction of the bill.

Of the 22 firms and 33 individuals initially fined - including big name brands Herta and Boeklunder - just four sausage producers will appear in the Duesseldorf regional court to contest their share of the punishment - some 22.6 million Euro. They are Heidemark Maesterkreis, Wiesenhof, Franz Wiltmann and Ruegenwalder Muehle as well as five company officials. They deny accusations of belonging to a so-called "sausage cartel" and refuse to pay up. Eleven other firms have accepted penalties to the tune of some 70 million Euro. But the remaining companies made use of a legal sleight of hand and simply restructured to make nearly 240 million Euro of the total bill disappear.

Under the loophole - dubbed the "sausage gap" - parent companies could not be held liable for the fines of a subsidiary if that subsidiary ceased to exist.The legal trickery ended earlier this year with a change in German competition law. Wolfgang Ingold, the chief executive of Franz Wiltmann, told a German industry publication he had been advised to employ the same tactic. "But we have nothing to hide and we want to see that confirmed by a court," he was quoted as saying.