The Competition Bureau has laid criminal charges against Nestle, Mars, and a company called ITWAL Ltd. for conspiring to fix the price of chocolate in Canada higher than it should otherwise be.

ITWAL is a national network of independent wholesale distributors.

The three companies, and three high-ranking executives who work for them, have been charged with conspiracy under Canada's Competition Act.

"Price-fixing is a serious criminal offence and today's charges demonstrate the Competition Bureau's resolve to stop cartel activity in Canada," said the bureau's interim commissioner, John Pecman.

The act allows for a fine of up to $25 million and/or imprisonment for a term of up to 14 years. "In this case, the conduct occurred under the former conspiracy provision and the accused face the possibility of a fine of up to $10 million and/or imprisonment for a term of up to five years," the bureau said in a release.

The bureau found out about the alleged scheme through its immunity program, under which the first party to disclose an offence or provide evidence may receive immunity, provided it fully co-operates.

Subsequent parties that help out in an investigation may receive lenient treatment. In this case the bureau says a fourth player, Hershey, came forward and co-operated, so the agency recommended to prosecutors that the company receive lenient treatment.

It is expected that Hershey will plead guilty for its role next June.

The individuals charged are former Nestle Canada president Robert Leonidas; Sandra Martinez, former president of confectionery for Nestle Canada; and David Glenn Stevens, president and chief executive of ITWAL.