Whole Foods Loses Hearing Request in FTC Fight

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Whole Foods Market Inc (WFMI) lost a bid on Friday for a larger panel of judges to review an appeals court decision that threw into question the legality of its already completed merger with former rival Wild Oats.

The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia said in a brief order that it would not revisit its July decision, which revived the Federal Trade Commission’s effort to block premium grocer Whole Foods’ effort to buy Wild Oats.

A three-judge panel ruled on July 29 that a district court judge had erred when he refused to grant an FTC request for an injunction to block the deal.

Whole Foods then asked for an “en banc” hearing, which would have involved all of the appeals court’s judges.

The FTC tried to challenge the merger in 2007, but a federal district judge refused to issue a preliminary injunction stopping the merger. It was finalized in August 2007.

The commission is one of two agencies that assesses whether mergers violate antitrust law.

Earlier this month, private equity firm Leonard Green & Partners bought preferred shares in Whole Foods for $425 million, which could give the fund about a 17 percent stake in the company if converted into common shares. Whole Foods plans to use the proceeds to pay down debt and to maintain long-term liquidity amid a slowing economy that has hurt its business.

(Reporting by Diane Bartz, editing by Gerald E. McCormick)