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Antitrust lawsuit filed against potato groups

| June 27, 2010 9:00 PM

BOISE (AP) - An antitrust lawsuit contending Idaho potato growers and others conspired to raise potato prices in the United States by controlling supply has been filed in federal court in Pocatello.

The action, filed last week on behalf of a New York produce wholesaler, asks the court to rule it a class-action lawsuit and award plaintiffs triple their damages, though no dollar figure was specified.

"Classic cartel behavior" is how the lawsuit describes the defendants' actions: "Each defendant knew that it could not fix prices by itself and the supply could only be restrained by collective action."

Among the 24 defendants are the United Potato Growers of America and the United Potato Growers of Idaho.

Barb Shelley, spokeswoman for the United Potato Growers of America, said the cooperatives are made up of farmers who are not breaking the law because of the Capper-Volstead Act of 1922, which exempts agricultural cooperatives from antitrust regulations under some circumstances.

"We view (the complaint) as an attack on our potato farmers who work every day to grow potatoes and to provide the country with an adequate supply of potatoes at a fair price," Shelley told the Idaho Statesman.

She said the group represents about 60 percent to 70 percent of the nation's fresh potato growers with members from Florida to Alaska.

"We have a dozen reasons they are violating the act," lead attorney James Pizzirusso said.

The suit contends that Idaho growers in 2005 met in Pocatello and agreed to plant 10 percent less than their 2004 base acres, and members who didn't agree to the reduction had to pay an assessment of $50 per acre.

The lawsuit says United Potato Growers of America formed that year and crop-size controls continued along with other measures.

"By 2009, potato prices had remained constant or grown for four consecutive growing seasons - something that had never happened in more than a century that USDA has been keeping such records," the complaint says.

Idaho produced 13.1 billion pounds of potatoes in 2009, about 30 percent of the nation's supply, according to the Idaho Department of Agriculture.

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