French farming and meat trade bodies have been told that fines imposed by the EU Commission in 2003 were legitimate and must stand.

The fines, which totalled €16.7m, were imposed on four farming unions and two slaughter federations which had colluded to fix beef prices and severely restrict beef imports.

Initially the six organisations signed a written agreement to restrict trade in this way and so support the French beef sector. But once the EU Commission had warned them – in November 2001 – that the agreement was unlawful, they continued their cartel on the basis of an oral agreement.

The largest fine, of €12m, was targeted at the main French farming union, the FNSEA. Smaller sums were levied on the young farmers group, two beef and milk federations and two meat bodies.

But all six contested the fines, taking it initially to the European Court of First Instance in 2004.

When it turned down their appeal, they then took it to the European Court of Justice, citing 10 different pleas to get the fines overturned, or at least reduced.

The ECJ issued its judgement this week, confirming that the cartel was illegal and the fines should stand.

An EU Commission spokesman said the judgement was a vindication of its efforts to enforce the law. It put an end to the case and confirmed the principle that fines could be based on the financial turnover of the offending party.

“There is no doubt that the organisations knew that their conduct was unlawful,” said a statement. During the investigation, documents were found which noted that the agreement was “a bit against the law” and asked “can we close ranks, without being caught by the competition authority?”.