Federal and state regulators are suing to block a national grocery chain merger that would sell 10 Harris Teeter stores in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C., to the company behind the Piggly Wiggly franchise.

The Federal Trade Commission, along with nine states including Maryland, on Monday filed a lawsuit challenging Kroger Co.’s $24.6 billion bid to purchase Albertsons Companies Inc., alleging the merger would reduce competition and lead to higher prices for millions of Americans.

Kroger’s plan to merge with Albertsons originally included a condition that it sell 10 of its Harris Teeter stores in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C,. to a third grocery chain, C&S Wholesale Grocers, a private wholesale grocery supply chain that operates Grand Union grocery stores and the Piggly Wiggly franchise.

“This supermarket mega merger comes as American consumers have seen the cost of groceries rise steadily over the past few years. Kroger’s acquisition of Albertsons would lead to additional grocery price hikes for everyday goods, further exacerbating the financial strain consumers across the country face today,” said Henry Liu, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Competition, in a news release. “Essential grocery store workers would also suffer under this deal, facing the threat of their wages dwindling, benefits diminishing, and their working conditions deteriorating.”

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Kroger’s decision to offload the Harris Teeter stores may have been made with federal regulatory concerns in mind ahead of the merger. The FTC, the agency responsible for enforcing civil antitrust laws and promoting consumer protections, has required other major grocery store retailers to sell stores as a condition of a merger.

Consolidation across the grocery retail industry has accelerated substantially since 1990. Research suggests this trend contributes over time to higher prices for consumers, producers and especially low-income households with food accessibility challenges.

Maryland Attorney General Anthony G. Brown in September asked Marylanders to submit input on the Kroger-Albertsons merger. Brown on Monday acknowledged some mergers can benefit consumers, but said this one would be bad for Marylanders. Nearly 60% of respondents to the office’s survey indicated they have concerns about the merger, he said.

“Americans spend more of their income on food than they have in decades,” Brown said in a news release Monday, adding that he will not hesitate to take legal action “to ensure Maryland families have access to affordable prices, a wide selection, and high-quality groceries.”

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The impact of the lawsuit on Maryland grocery stores remains unclear. Kroger representatives have not said which of its 18 Harris Teeter stores in Maryland are slated for sale.

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In a statement Tuesday, a Kroger spokesperson said the company previously promised no stores, distribution centers or manufacturing facilities would close as a result of the merger, including those sold to C&S. The company pushed back on the FTC’s statements and said that blocking the merger would “actually harm the very people the FTC purports to serve: America’s consumers and workers.”

“The FTC’s decision makes it more likely that America’s consumers will see higher food prices and fewer grocery stores at a time when communities across the country are already facing high inflation and food deserts,” a Kroger spokesperson said in a statement. “In fact, this decision only strengthens larger, non-unionized retailers like Walmart, Costco and Amazon by allowing them to further increase their overwhelming and growing dominance of the grocery industry.”

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