(Feb. 28) A series of class action lawsuits has a group of mushroom buyers — including a major Midwestern grocery chain — claiming members of the Eastern Mushroom Marketing Cooperative artificially restricted supply and raised mushroom prices.

The four separate lawsuits were filed by Meijer Inc., Grand Rapids, Mich.; William Rosenstein & Sons Co., a Scranton, Pa., produce wholesaler; a trustee for the bankrupt tomato repacker John Manning Co. Inc., Forest Park, Ga.; and Diversified Foods & Seasonings Inc., a Metairie, La., mushroom processor.

The petition names the cooperative and 11 other mushroom growers and shippers including Monterey Mushrooms Inc., Watsonville, Calif.; Phillips Mushroom Farms, Kennett Square, Pa.; Franklin Farms Inc., North Franklin, Conn.; and To-Jo Fresh Mushrooms Inc., Avondale, Pa.

A lawsuit filed Feb. 10 in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania by a lawyer representing Diversified argues the Wayne, Pa.-based cooperative inflated mushroom prices by 8% across the U.S. starting in 2001.

In the alleged supply control conspiracy, the plaintiffs contend, cooperative members violated the Robinson-Patman and the Clayton acts by engaging in anticompetitive exclusive dealings.

The members “used their illegal conspiracy and unlawful market power to suppress competition” and harm noncooperative member buyers and suppliers through a scheme to fix, raise and or stabilize agaricus mushroom prices at artificial and non-competitive levels, according to the lawsuit.

Jack Crooks, the cooperative’s chief executive officer, said the group plans to vigorously fight the lawsuits.

He said the cases are based on the U.S. Department of Justice’s 2004 antitrust investigation into the cooperative’s sales of mushroom operations. In its settlement, the cooperative agreed to remove deed restrictions that prevented mushroom growing on the six eastern mushroom growing operations.

Most of the operations, Crooks said, had not been producing mushrooms for a long time before the cooperative sold them.

The investigation, he said, didn’t find proof that the cooperative violated antitrust laws.

“This case is all about the money,” Crooks said. “I just can’t imagine that there’s a relationship between farms that weren’t producing and the price of mushrooms at the time.”