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UK's OFT probes consumer goods companies, grocers

Consumer goods companies and more supermarkets confirmed Łthat they had been contacted by Britain's consumer affairs watchdog following reports of an investigation into alleged price fixing.

News of the probe by the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) comes days before Britain's competition regulator is due to announce the outcome of a two-year inquiry into the country's Ł120 billion ($238 billion) a year grocery sector.

Procter & Gamble, the world's biggest household and personal-care products maker, said representatives of the OFT had inspected its offices, while Anglo-Dutch group Unilever and privately owned Mars said they had received letters asking for information.

Tesco, Britain's biggest supermarket group, also said it had been asked to provide information.

This followed a statement from grocer J Sainsbury on Sunday, which said it had been visited by the OFT.

The OFT declined to comment.

Newspapers such as the Financial Times (FT) said the OFT was investigating alleged price-fixing between Britain's biggest supermarkets and their suppliers.

The FT said household products maker Reckitt Benckiser and supermarkets Asda and Wm Morrison were also involved in the investigations.

Asda declined to comment. Reckitt and Morrison were not immediately available for comment.

The probe is the latest in a string of investigations by the OFT, which earlier this month said it suspected 112 building companies of forming cartels to boost public works contracts.

The investigations, such as into alleged price-fixing of cigarettes and milk, have often included Britain's supermarkets.

Indeed, the OFT referred the whole supermarket sector to Britain's competition watchdog for an in-depth probe in 2006.

The Competition Commission is expected to announce the outcome of that investigation this week.

In its provisional findings in February, the Commission recommended a tougher code of practice for supermarkets and a change to local planning rules to include “competition test” before new, large stores are approved.

But it stopped short of requiring any sales of land or stores. (Reuters)