Trouble brewing: AB InBev accused of keeping cheap beer from Belgians

It is an announcement that could hardly be better designed to get the blood of the average Belgian boiling.

The European commission has said drinkers in the country have probably been paying over the odds for their favourite beers for years.

AB InBev, the world’s biggest brewing company, has been accused by Brussels of charging less for its popular Jupiler and Leffe beers in France and the Netherlands than in Belgium, and using its dominant position in the Belgian market to get away with it.

Such news would undoubtedly prove a blow to drinkers in any country. For Belgians, however, where beer is one of the few unifying cultural artefacts of its multilingual society, the ruling is particularly galling, as Margrethe Vestager, the commissioner in charge of competition policy, hinted at in a statement on Thursday.

“Belgian consumers may have had to pay more for their favourite beers,” said Vestager. “Our preliminary finding is that AB InBev may have deliberately prevented cheaper beer imports out of France and the Netherlands from reaching consumers in Belgium. Such practices would breach EU competition rules, because they deny consumers the benefits of the EU single market – choice and lower prices.”

After a year-long investigation, the commission said it believed there was evidence that AB InBev had been pursuing “a deliberate strategy” for at least eight years to prevent supermarkets and wholesalers from buying Jupiler and Leffe at lower prices in the Netherlands and France and importing them into Belgium.

It is claimed the company changed the packaging of Jupiler and Leffe beer cans in the Netherlands and France to make them harder to sell in Belgium.

It is also alleged they removed French text from cans in the Netherlands, and Dutch text from its cans in France, to prevent their sale in the French and Dutch speaking parts of Belgium, respectively.

The brewer is further accused of limiting Dutch retailers’ access to key products and promotions in order to prevent them from bringing less expensive beer products to Belgium.

AB InBev is based in Leuven and has a £38.8bn turnover. Last year it completed a merger worth £76.5bn with SAB Miller.

It said it was working constructively with the commission on the complaints and that integrity was a core principle of the company.

A spokesman said: “It would not be appropriate for us to comment further concerning the European commission’s decision to issue a statement of objections in relation to certain alleged practices on the Belgian beer market, other than that we have been working constructively with the EC since the investigation was announced in June 2016.

“Thursday’s announcement is a procedural step. A statement of objections is not a final decision on the outcome of the case. As a company, we take compliance very seriously.”