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Justice Dept. investigating vitamin wholesalers on antitrust questions

November 19, 1997

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The makers of bulk vitamins that go into everything from animal feed to infant formula are under investigation by the Justice Department for possible antitrust violations, the government said Wednesday.

The biggest segment of the $3 billion bulk-vitamin market is products used in feed to increase quality, profit and competitiveness in animal production. Bulk vitamins, most commonly vitamins A, E and C, also are used in cosmetics such as skin and hair care products, in many cases to prevent chemical reactions. In addition, bulk vitamins are used to fortify foods ranging from cooking oil and margarine to cereals and sports drinks.

Bulk vitamins also are used to turn out the tablets Americans consume as dietary supplements. Nearly 50 percent of Americans regularly consume dietary supplements including vitamins, minerals and herbs, according to congressional estimates.

Federal health officials say supplements may help meet special nutritional needs but do not supply all the nutrients and other substances present in foods that are important to health. Sales of multivitamins and single-letter vitamin tablets are growing steadily, while sales of mineral and herbal supplements are booming.

The top two manufacturers of bulk vitamins _ Hoffman-LaRoche Inc. and BASF Corp. _ said they were aware of the investigation but had not been contacted by authorities. The No. 3 maker of bulk vitamins _ Rhone Poulenc SA _ said it had not been subpoenaed and had no information about the alleged investigation.

``The antitrust division is looking into the possibility of anti-competitive practices by vitamin producers,″ said Justice Department spokeswoman Gina Talamona. She did not identify the companies under investigation.

The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday that the investigation involved alleged price-fixing and collusion and that a federal grand jury in Dallas was weighing the evidence.

Pam Fears, a spokeswoman for Hoffmann-La Roche, said, ``We have not been subpoenaed, nor have we received any information that we are target of this investigation. ... I believe we became aware of it through third parties.″

Bill Pagano, a spokesman for BASF, said the department had convened ``in Dallas to look at the trust situation in the vitamin industry″ but federal authorities had not contacted the company.

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