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Anheuser-Busch accused of unfair sales practices

The Justice Department is looking into allegations that the nation's largest brewer, Anheuser-Busch Inc., is engaging in unfair sales practices, The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday.

Industry lawyers and executives told the newspaper the antitrust probe is mainly concerned with the brewer's pushiness in getting beer distributors to carry its products exclusively and its use of marketing agreements that elbow smaller brands out of the market.Among other things, investigators are looking into a restrictive wholesale distribution contract the St. Louis-based company had its distributors sign in August, giving Anheuser a say in practically all of their ownership and management changes, it said.

Anheuser-Busch's vice president for corporate law, Royce Estes, said "we are confident that this program is entirely lawful."

But the head of popular independent Seattle label Pyramid Breweries Inc., George Hancock, put it quite differently.

"They're playing hardball," he told the newspaper. Hancock said his company has had to look for other distributors in some markets because of Anheuser-Busch practices.

The Justice Department launched its investigation in July.