(Nov. 14) WISCONSIN RAPIDS, Wis. — Northland Cranberries Inc., a former grower for Ocean Spray Cranberries Inc., filed a lawsuit against its competitor, claiming the cooperative is a cartel that illegally monopolizes the cranberry industry — from the bogs to the grocery store shelf.

Among allegations listed in the complaint, Northland said Ocean Spray, Lakeville-Middleboro, Mass., has eliminated and weakened independent processors and growers by refusing to sell product to competitors, locking up growers in contracts and paying retailers to remove Northland products from shelves.

Clermont Inc., a Duxbury, Mass., cranberry processor that went out of business in 1999, joined the lawsuit against Ocean Spray, which controls 80% of the U.S. cranberry production, according to the complaint.

Ocean Spray spokesman Chris Phillips declined to address specific allegations in the complaint, but said the cooperative will defend itself “vigorously” in court.

“We compete fairly in the marketplace. Our company and all members of the cranberry industry have struggled through some difficult years,” Phillips said in a prepared statement. “We have been subjected to all of the same market forces as our competitors. We will continue to compete fairly and lead this industry as we always have.”

Northland and Ocean Spray’s primary products are juices, but both market fresh berries during the fall. Less than 5% of Ocean Spray’s net sales of $1.07 billion in fiscal year 2002 were from fresh product. Information on Northland’s fresh sales were unavailable.

Northland restructured its debt a year ago through an agreement with Sun Northland LLC, an affiliate of Sun Capital Partners, Boca Raton, Fla. Northland’s 2002 fiscal year net income was $53.8 million on revenues of $101.5 million, taking into account debt forgiveness from the restructuring.

Kenneth Iwinski, vice president-legal of Northland, declined to discuss the pending lawsuit, which was filed in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 8.

Iwinski didn’t say whether Northland itself uses slotting fees to maintain shelf space, but said “slotting fees are not atypical in the retail industry.”

The Ocean Spray lawsuit was filed the same week the cooperative’s chief executive officer, Robert Hawthorne, resigned.