(Jan. 12) CORAL GABLES, Fla. — The pineapple wars are raging on a fresh front for Fresh Del Monte Produce Inc.

Fresh Del Monte said Jan. 6 that it is facing two lawsuits that claim that the fruit grower and distributor monopolized or tried to monopolize the sale of extra-sweet pineapples in violation of U.S. antitrust law.

The Coral Gables-based company said the lawsuits, each brought in late December by an individual wholesale buying operation, have been filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York and in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts.

The company said the lawsuits were seeking class-action status court certification and related to its Del Monte Gold Extra Sweet pineapple.

Filing separate actions in New York and Massachusetts, respectively, were Bronx, N.Y.-based American Banana Co. Inc., a now-defunct wholesaler, and Boston-based J. Bonafede & Sons.

“There’s a pretty rich factual record that, in our opinion, is highly persuasive, indicating that there was some clear abuse of patent procedure in aid of an effective monopolization campaign over many years,” said Peter Pease, a Boston-based attorney representing J. Bonafede & Sons.

J. Douglas Richards, a New York-based attorney representing American Banana, declined to comment on the case.

WITHOUT MERIT

Fresh Del Monte said in a news release that it had not been served with the complaints. However, it said that it intends to vigorously defend itself against them.

“The allegations in the complaints are entirely without merit,” Fresh Del Monte said in a news release.

Dana Weinstein, a spokeswoman for Fresh Del Monte, declined to comment further.

“We’re expecting a vigorous fight over this, and it will take some time before it all sorts out,” Pease said. “Antitrust cases take a long time.”

Fresh Del Monte added that it believes that all aspects of the production and marketing of the pineapple were proper and in compliance with the U.S. antitrust laws.

Heather Jones, an analyst with BB&T Securities, Winston-Salem, N.C., said she wasn’t sure of the merit of the antitrust claims.

“(Fresh Del Monte) had already made claims for years that they had a patent and then had to acknowledge that they (disclaimed the patent),” Jones said. “And Dole and Chiquita already have volumes (of their own gold varieties) coming into the market.”

However, the financial risks of losing such a case are considerable, Jones said.

“It could be a big cash impact because if they are found guilty, they’d have to pay damages, and antitrust damages are trebled,” she said. “They’ve made a lot of money off this product.”

In October, The Wall Street Journal reported that Westlake Village, Calif.-based Dole Food Co., Cincinnati-based Chiquita Fresh NA and others are planting thousands of acres of competing pineapples in Central America.

70% OF MARKET

The newspaper said Fresh Del Monte controls 70% of the fresh whole pineapple business in the U.S. and that the worldwide market for the fruit is valued at more than $1 billion a year. It also noted that of Fresh Del Monte’s $2.09 billion in revenue in 2002, $440 million came from pineapples.

Fresh Del Monte describes the pineapples as having a square, barrel-like appearance, with a deep gold/yellow color inside.

The antitrust actions are the latest foray into the legal system for Fresh Del Monte.

“They’ve been litigating over these issues for years,” Pease said.

It was only last May that Fresh Del Monte had dropped claims of patent infringement against Maui Pineapple Co. Ltd. in connection with an ongoing legal battle between the two companies over the rights to grow, sell and license the extra sweet, hybrid pineapples that the Maui firm sells under its Hawaiian Gold label.

Del Monte admitted that its claims were invalid based on prepatent sales of the hybrid — known as the 73-114 — by Maui Pineapple, and withdrew its charges on that basis.

At about the same time, Del Monte filed an official notice with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office that it was waiving its proprietary claim to the entirety of U.S. Plant Patent No. 8,863, which Del Monte had obtained in 1994 with regard to its gold variety.

Del Monte had introduced its Gold Extra Sweet, the CO-2 variety, in 1996, obtaining patent protection for that product.

Dole entered the market with its Premium Select variety in 2000, promptly drawing a patent-infringement lawsuit from Fresh Del Monte. The companies ultimately settled out of court under undisclosed terms.

Dole and Maui Pineapple have intensified their gold programs.

Fresh Del Monte withdrew its patent in 2003, admitting that the pineapple had been sold commercially before the patent was issued.

The CO-2, the companies now agree, is the same pineapple that Maui Pineapple had been selling.

“But the question is, how much damage did they do during the entire period that they were operating with a phony patent, and that’s substantial,” Pease said.

UNRELATED ACTION

Fresh Del Monte also faces a lawsuit by former shareholders in a Florida state court. The plaintiffs there claim that the sale of the company in 1996 was fraudulent.

Former shareholders claim that Fresh Del Monte’s controlling shareholder, IAT Group, Santiago, Chile, paid a bribe to acquire the company at a low price from its previous owner, the Mexican government. IAT is controlled by the family of Mohammad Abu-Ghazaleh, Fresh Del Monte’s chief executive officer. Fresh Del Monte says IAT acquired the company legitimately.

Fresh Del Monte also has confirmed that it is the subject of an inquiry by the Securities and Exchange Commission but has declined to elaborate on the nature of the probe. The SEC also has declined to comment.