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PCC to finish probe into alleged onion cartels in next three months

The Philippine Competition Commission (PCC) on Monday said it expects to finish its investigation into alleged onion cartels in the next two to three months, should there be sufficient evidence.

In a briefing on Monday, PCC Chairperson Michael Aguinaldo, who took office four weeks ago, said the antitrust body continued to collect information on  supposed onion cartels.

“I mean, if it leads to nowhere, then there’s no use prolonging it. But if the evidence is there, and I believe they are able to find evidence, then it should be within the next two to three months or so,” he told reporters in Quezon City.

The antitrust body started investigating a possible cartel of abuse of dominance on the onion industry as prices hit as high as P700 per kilogram in some Metro Manila markets in late 2022.

The Department of Agriculture (DA) last month approved the importation of 21,060 metric tons (MT) of onions to address this, with importers given until January 27, 2023 for the shipments to arrive.

The DA also reported that some 100,000 MT of onions went to waste last year, reflecting a 35% loss after harvest due to lack of cold storages and improper handling.

Latest data available from the DA show that prices of onions in Metro Manila as of last Friday - February 24, 2023 ranged from P80 to P160 for imported and P90 to P200 for local, depending on the variety.

“The investigation is ongoing as we speak. There are no firm results yet because they are still gathering a lot of information,” Aguinaldo said.

“The challenge, of course, is if you talk about cartels and anti-competition agreements like this, it’s quite hard to prove because you’re looking at having to prove an agreement actually exists among, you know, major players and usually you won't find something like that in writing,” he explained.

Among the difficulties encountered by the PCC was the lack of physical evidence as there were no onion supplies reported in the cold storage facilities raided by the agency.

Moving forward, the PCC is banking on its leniency program to entice witnesses to come forward by incentivizing cooperation from current and former cartel participants with information necessary for a successful investigation.

Aguinaldo said one party has so far availed of the program. The agency’s website indicates that only one beneficiary of immunity from suit and one beneficiary of reduction of fines are allowed for each reported violation.

“It’s a bit of a challenge to actually look at. But, you know, if the evidence is there, if there are people who are willing to spill the beans, then it’s something that can be pursued to hopefully fruition,” he said. — DVM, GMA Integrated News