* Total fines reach 192.7 million euros
* Lactalis hit by highest penalty, says will appeal
* Whistleblower Yoplait exempt from fine (Adds details, Lactalis reaction)
By Dominique Vidalon
PARIS, March 12 (Reuters) - France’s competition watchdog handed out fines worth 192.7 million euros ($204 million) on Thursday to a cartel of yoghurt makers who met in secret for six years to fix prices until Yoplait turned whistleblower.
The Competition Authority said the companies fined for fixing the price of supermarket own-brand yoghurt included French dairy groups Lactalis, Senagral, Novandie as well as Les Maitres Laitiers du Cotentin, Alsace Lait, Laita, Laiterie de Saint Malo, Yeo Frais and Laiterie H. Triballat.
The companies met in hotels, in an apartment and a famous Parisian cafe called “Le Chien qui Fume”, keeping secret records and using mobile phones dedicated to the cartel, the investigation showed.
The cartel, which operated from 2006 to 2012, was identified under a scheme that reduces or waives fines for whistleblowers.
Yoplait, majority-owned by U.S. food group General Mills and one of the market leaders, escaped a 44.7 million euro penalty as a result of blowing the cartel’s cover.
Yoplait kept a secret notebook that contained all the decisions taken by the cartel and which it handed to the regulator in exchange for clemency. The company could not immediately be reached for comment.
Family-owned group Senagral also had its fine reduced to 46 million euros from 101.3 million euros.
Lactalis received the biggest fine at 56.1 million euros. It did not contest the charges but said it would appeal against the “extremely severe” fine.
The watchdog said during the six year period, the companies agreed to coordinate on price rises they would impose on retailers, and on the arguments used to justify their actions.
Hypermarket and supermarkets are the main outlet for French dairy products, accounting for 92 percent of sales of yoghurts, fresh cheese or cream worth some 5 billion euros in 2013.
The only company challenging the charges was Laiterie de Saint Malo, which was fined 300,000 euros.
Danone, the world’s largest yoghurt maker, does not sell products under supermarkets’ own brands and was not part of the cartel.
$1 = 0.9439 euros Editing by David Clarke