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U.S. Sugar responds to lawsuit attempting to block purchase of competitor; trial set for April

United States Sugar Corp., a Clewiston, Florida, company that markets sugar cooperatively with Red River Valley sugarbeet growers, is seeking to purchase Imperial Sugar Co., including a major refinery in the Savannah, Georgia, area. The U.S. Department of Justice on Tuesday, Nov. 23, announced it was suing to block the purchase that could increase the market share of United Sugars Corp., the Edina, Minn.-based co-op marketing company, from its current 25% market share, to 32% to 34%.

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U.S. Sugar Corp., a Florida marketing partner in United Sugars Corp., of Edina, Minn., announced March 24, 2021, that it will purchase the Imperial Sugar Co., including its big port refinery near Savannah, Ga. This will increase market stability for partner beet cooperatives in the Red River Valley. Photo circa. 2021, courtesy United Sugars Inc. Photo courtesy United Sugars Inc. / Agweek
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WILMINGTON, Delaware — In response to a federal lawsuit seeking to block consolidation in the sugar industry, U.S. Sugar says its attempt to purchase a competing refiner will improve consumer access to sugar, not hinder it.

In court documents that also seeks to move the case from Delaware to Georgia, Robert Buker Jr., U.S. Sugar's president and CEO, defended the plan to buy Imperial Sugar and its refinery at Port Wentworth, Georgia, near the port city of Savannah.

"U.S. Sugar is acquiring Imperial’s assets in order to modernize Imperial’s aging refining facility so that it operates more efficiently, at a lower cost, and to increase U.S. Sugar’s refined sugar output. Acquiring Imperial’s Port Wentworth facility will allow U.S. Sugar to become more competitive and better positioned to hedge against and withstand extreme weather events that too often plague sugar farmers and the food supply chain in Florida and across the United States. The acquisition will also allow U.S. Sugar to provide a wider variety of sugar products to customers, and at the same time, consistent with the objectives of the federal U.S. Sugar Program and various Executive Branch mandates, make Imperial less reliant on foreign sugar imports," said in a letter filed in U.S. District Court in Delaware.

The U.S. Department of Justice on Tuesday, Nov. 23, announced it was suing to block U.S. Sugar's bid for Imperial Sugar. Also named as a defendant is United Sugars Cooperative of Edina, Minnesota, the marketing cooperative that includes U.S. Sugar, American Crystal Sugar Co. of Moorhead, Minnesota, Minn-Dak Farmers Cooperative of Wahpeton, North Dakota, and Wyoming Sugar Co.

Buker's letter was filed Monday, Dec. 6, in support of moving the case from Delaware to Georgia. A motion to move the case was filed by U.S. Sugar on Friday, Dec. 3.

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U.S. Sugar also requested that case be heard no later than April 2022. The Department of Justice had proposed a September 2022 trial, according to court documents, but U.S. Sugar attorneys noted that September marked "outside date" for completing the purchase agreement. After that, the deal can be called off.

On Monday, Dec. 6, Judge Maryellen Noreika ordered that the trial should start the week of April 11, 2022. Also, the Justice Department has until Dec. 13 to reply to the change of venue request.

The civil antitrust lawsuit was filed in Delaware, where Louis Dreyfus Company, the Netherlands-based parent company of Imperial Sugar, is organized. United States Sugar Corporation also is incorporated in Delaware, but has its headquarters in Florida, where it operates a large sugar refinery.

The purchase of Imperial Sugar could increase the market share of United Sugars from its 25% to 32% to 34%, Matt Wineinger, United Sugars president and CEO, had previously told Agweek.

In announcing the lawsuit, the Justice Department cited the "cozy" relationship among U.S. sugar companies.

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American Crystal Sugar Co. in 1994 spearheaded the creation of United Sugar Corp., now based in Edina, Minn., whose members as a group market both beet and cane sugar. One of its members, U.S. Sugar Corp. of Clewiston, Fla., is purchasing Imperial Sugar Co., which will increase market share for the whole group. Photo taken March 24, 2021, at Moorhead, Minn. Mikkel Pates / Agweek

The Justice Department contends that a U.S. Sugar and Imperial Sugar deal would leave only one other competitor, American Sugar Refining, in the southeast U.S.

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In court documents, the defendants say that the evidence will show that the deal is beneficial to U.S. farmers, customers and consumers and that the law does not support the Justice Department's attempt to block the deal.

Primary motivators behind the deal were to "revitalize the Port Wentworth sugar facility to improve its operations, efficiency, and output; and to reduce its dependence on foreign imports and instead process sugarcane grown by American farmers in Florida."

Among the factors cited in requesting the case be moved to Georgia, the defendants say the case "will directly impact the approximately 400 employees who work at the Port Wentworth facility and live in the surrounding community. "

Reach Jeff Beach at jbeach@agweek.com or call 701-451-5651 (work) or 859-420-1177.
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