ADM WATCH: PRICE-FIXING LAWSUITS ARE PILING UP
By RICHARD BEHAR

(FORTUNE Magazine) – "The customer is our enemy; the competitor is our friend." That's the unofficial world-view of $11-billion-in-sales Archer Daniels Midland, according to FBI mole-executive Mark Whitacre, who told his story exclusively in the last issue of FORTUNE. And--let's face it--mottoes like these don't come along every day for class-action lawyers. "I think it has great jury appeal," laughs Alabama attorney Steve Gregory. "It's utterly astounding."

Gregory is part of a network of law firms that have recently filed 11--and counting--class-action price-fixing lawsuits against ADM and its presumed competitors. The plaintiffs include a pair of hog farmers, a Seven-Up bottling company in Alabama, a food wholesaler in Brooklyn, and a maker of ice-cream toppings in Philadelphia. They all allege that ADM fixed prices of high-fructose corn syrup, lysine, or citric acid.

Whitacre, who attempted suicide after making his revelations, is laying low. ADM isn't talking, other than to accuse Whitacre of stealing millions, which he previously denied. But ADM hasn't yet commented on what he said. The company remains under investigation by the Department of Justice and has not been charged with any crimes. But the plaintiff bar is busy hiring economists and recruiting alleged victims. "We've got customers who aren't even named plaintiffs who are just vituperative about this," says attorney Michael Rediker. "But they're afraid of retaliation."

In 1989 ADM entered the business of selling lysine, used primarily as an ingredient in hog and chicken feed. After an initial drop, the price of lysine has since doubled. In the high-fructose corn syrup world, ADM is accused of acting equally piggishly. One plaintiff, Golden Eagle Foods of Alabama, says that ADM and rival Cargill played a friendly ping-pong game with prices, at his expense.

So far, big customers are keeping very mum, although PepsiCo did join a class-action suit against ADM in 1992, accusing it of conspiring with competitors to set prices on liquid carbon dioxide. Last year ADM paid the plaintiffs $1.4 million to settle its portion of the suit, which had also been fueled by an internal whistle blower.

- Richard Behar