OTTAWA, Ontario -- The accused in a chocolate price-fixing case could face a bitter fate if convicted – millions of dollars in fines for the companies and potential jail time for the individuals.

Canada's Competition Bureau said Thursday it is laying criminal charges against Nestle SA's Canada arm, Mars Inc.'s Canada division and ITWAL Ltd., a network of independent wholesale distributors. Also charged are former Nestle Canada Inc. president Robert Leonidas; Sandra Martinez, former president of confectionery for Nestle Canada; and David Glenn Stevens, president and chief executive of ITWAL.

Hershey Canada Inc. is also pleading guilty to one count of price fixing, subject to court approval. Hershey Co.'s Canada division cooperated with the investigation and the agency recommended that the company receive lenient treatment.

"We are fully committed to pursuing those who engage in egregious anticompetitive behavior that harms Canadian consumers," said interim competition commissioner John Pecman. "Price-fixing is a serious criminal offense and today's charges demonstrate the Competition Bureau's resolve to stop cartel activity in Canada."

The bureau says it must not only prove competitors agreed to fix prices, but that the agreement would likely have "an undue economic effect" on the market.

In separate statements, both Nestle and Mars said they intend to "vigorously defend" themselves against the charges, which date back to 2007 and earlier. A statement from ITWAL was not immediately available.

The bureau found out about the alleged scheme through its immunity program, under which the first party to disclose an offense or provide evidence may receive immunity, provided it fully cooperates. Subsequent parties that help out in an investigation may receive lenient treatment.

Hershey Canada said it reported communications with competitors related to the price fixing from 2007 to the Competition Bureau. Its current senior management, as well as parent company Hershey Co.'s leaders, were not involved in fixing prices, the company said.

Canada's Competition Act's current conspiracy provision could mean a fine of $25 million as well as imprisonment of up to 14 years. But since the price-fixing took place under an earlier provision, the penalties are less harsh. In this case, the accused face a fine of up to $10 million as well as a prison term of up to five years.

The bureau says proving the law was broken will also be more complicated under the old rules.

Earlier on HuffPost:

Loading Slideshow...
  • Mcdonald's - Pizza

    That's right, McDonald's actually once served a <a href="">pizza</a>. The company <a href="">hoped the idea would be its next "McHit</a>" around 1989, according to the New York Times. The item was largely considered a <a href="">fail</a>, but that hasn't stopped a <a href="">cult following</a> from forming around the dish.

  • Baskin-Robbins - Turkey Cake

    It's a turkey, but it's also a cake, but it's also ice cream? This slightly bizarre specialty item became available in November of 2012.

  • Pizza Hut - Bigfoot Pizza

    The pizza debuted in 1993 and was nearly 2 feet long, according to Doug Terfehr, Director of Public Relations for Pizza Hut. What's not to love about 2 feet of pizza?

  • KFC - Double Down

    The <a href="">sandwich</a> is rather simple: just chicken cheese and bacon, sans the bread. But that hasn't stopped over <a href="">10 million people from trying it</a>.

  • McDonald's - Shamrock Shake

    McDonald's first introduced this mint-flavored shake topped with whipped cream and a cherry in 1970. Since then, it has garnered somewhat of a cult following at McDonald's. Despite such popularity, it can still only be purchased during certain times of the year.

  • Taco Bell - Doritos Locos Tacos

    After it busted onto the scene in<a href=""> March of 2012</a>, the Doritos locos taco quickly became the <a href="">most popular item in Taco Bell history</a>. In February, the fast food chain announced that a <a href="">whopping 325 million had been sold</a>.

  • Burger King - Memphis BBQ Sandwich

    The Memphis BBQ sandwich, which hit menus last June, includes Sweet Baby Ray’s Sweet ‘n Spicy BBQ sauce, bringing a bit of country cooking to Burger King's menu. And it may have just inspired other fast food chains, like Carl's Jr and Hardee's, <a href="">to explore BBQ-themed items as well</a>.

  • Starbucks - Pumpkin Spice Latte

    Every fall, customers begin to crave <a href="">Starbucks' pumpkin spice latte</a>, so much so that the coffee giant struggled with a <a href="">shortage</a> last year due to have demand. (Containers of the syrup sold for as much as $50 on eBay.)

  • Burger King - Cheesy Tots

    The cheesy tots first made their way onto Burger King's menu in 2010, only to disappear later that year. That eventually led to a <a href="">Facebook campaign </a> to bring the tots back, which proved successful when they reappeared last month.

  • McDonald's - McRib

    The barbecue-slathered McRib was such a hit in 1981 that it became a seasonal menu item the next year. The item is so popular, in fact, <a href="">that it even boosted McDonald's profits at the end of last year</a>.