Parmalat crisis to hit ingredients suppliers?

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Related tags: Parmalat, European union, Bankruptcy

The emergency decree passed late last month by the Italian
government in a bid to save dairy giant Parmalat from collapse
looks set to win support from the European Commission on the back
of guarantees that there will be no state bail-out for the company.

Italy last week passed details of the law to the Commission amid concerns that the government's measures might conflict with European rules prohibiting state aid.

The Italian government has since assured the Commission that the measures are confined to a form of bankruptcy protection akin to Chapter 11 in the US - shielding the company from its obligations to creditors in order that it might have an opportunity to restructure its business.

"The Italians have told the Commission that no other financial measures in relation to Parmalat are foreseen,"​ Commission spokesman Tilman Lueder told FoodNavigator.com​.

It is the first time the European Commission has reviewed bankruptcy protection as a form of subsidy. If the decree involves no government aid to Parmalat - as seems likely - it will rest within the law.

Lueder said the Commission decision on whether the Italian decree conforms with Commission rules on state aid could be made within the next two weeks.

The crisis at the Italian-based foods group has become one of Europe's biggest-ever corporate scandals. Parmalat was declared insolvent last month after it emerged that fictitious offshore funds and bank accounts had overstated the company's assets by nearly €4 billion ($5bn).

Parmalat founder Calisto Tanzi is now in jail along with other top managers. The former head of Parmalat's Venezuelan operations Giovanni Bonici on Friday became the ninth person jailed in the case.

Under the emergency bankruptcy decree, troubleshooter Enrico Bondi has been court-appointed as administrator of the insolvent food group and is in charge of restructuring the operations in an effort to save the group from a complete melt-down.

The news that no additional financial aid will be forthcoming to help him in this task will sweep aside accusations of special treatment, but it will also dash the hopes of many suppliers that there might be compensation, or at least partial settlements, of the group's hefty trade debts.

Bankruptcy protection leaves the payment of all trade accounts to the discretion of the administrators and can even over-ride existing contracts.

Some ingredients companies remain confident that existing contracts will nonetheless be honoured, even as Parmalat's funds to continue paying all suppliers are stretched to perhaps impossible limits.

Danish dairy-based ingredients company Arla Food Ingredients, with sales of €740 million, has long-term contracts supplying milk powder to Parmalat's operations in South America.

"The money that Parmalat owes us is secured,"​ Louis Honore, a spokesman for Arla Food ingredients told FoodNavigator.com. "Under the agreements we have with Parmalat, we will definitely get the money,"​ he said, citing "irrevocable letters of credit"​, and insurance established in contracts signed long ago.

Other companies are refusing to comment on their chances of securing payment.

FoodNavigator.com asked Italian law firm specialising in bankruptcy law Studio Legale Bucci what implications Italy's new decree might have for payments to suppliers.

"The 'irrevocable letters of credit' and insurance are in principle safe because there is a third party who guarantees for them,"​ Andrea Bucci, a lawyer at the Italian firm told FoodNavigator.com. "But it is not quite sure,"​ he added. "It depends on the developments of the situation."

In the event that the emergency administration fails to restore Parmalat to solvency, creditors will be paid in the pecking order laid out in the Italian civil code. In that case, no contract will be watertight.

Bucci told FoodNavigator.com that according to the Italian law there is no "particular kind of guaranteed payment that is different from the ordinary ones"​. This means that in the event of actual bankruptcy, Italian dairy farmers and Italian suppliers, may not actually have priority in the payment stakes over their European or global equivalents.

Parmalat's administrator, Enrico Bondi, now has six months to rescue Parmalat from collapse. As he picks over who to pay, what to sell and how to keep the show going during a time of such uncertainty, ingredients companies across the world, from DMV International to DSM, will be scrutinising every move for signs on the degree to which the group's troubles will flip back as write-offs within their own businesses.

Related topics: Manufacturers

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