WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Justice Department is investigating ``possible anticompetitive practices'' in the way major tobacco companies buy leaf tobacco, officials said Friday.

The grand jury investigation follows a preliminary antitrust inquiry begun in January, Justice Department spokeswoman Gina Talamona said. She would not elaborate.

Industry officials said at least two companies _ Philip Morris Cos. and Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp. _ are under investigation for allegedly exclusionary contract arrangements with tobacco middlemen.

Philip Morris spokeswoman Mary Carnovale said the company received a subpoena for documents Wednesday from a Philadelphia grand jury investigating leaf buying.

``We're reviewing the subpoena and will cooperate with the grand jury,'' Ms. Carnovale said.

A spokesman for Brown & Williamson, Mark Smith, would not say whether the company is involved.

``We have a long policy of not commenting on grand jury investigations,'' Smith said.

In Richmond, Va., tobacco buyer Universal Corp. confirmed the company received grand jury subpoenas that ``seek documents and information about the tobacco industry.''

In a statement Friday, the company said the subpoenas are related to the investigation being conducted by the Justice Department's antitrust office in Philadelphia. Universal is reviewing the subpoenas and will cooperate, the statement said.

Universal is the world's largest independent leaf tobacco merchant, with interests in selecting, buying, shipping and processing.

A Universal spokeswoman, Karen Whelan, did not immediately respond to a request for further comment.

The industry officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the investigation focused initially on independent buyers who purchase leaf tobacco from farmers.

For three years, the Justice Department has been investigating various elements of the tobacco industry, including many of the major companies. Two federal grand juries, one in Washington and another in New York, are looking into whether tobacco companies withheld evidence from regulators or lied to Congress or regulators about the dangers and addictiveness of tobacco products.

In January, a California biotechnology company pleaded guilty to conspiring to grow high-nicotine tobacco secretly in foreign countries so Brown & Williamson could ``control and manipulate the nicotine levels in its cigarettes.''

As part of the plea negotiated in Washington, DNA Plant Technology Corp., of Oakland, agreed to cooperate in the ongoing investigation.

Separately, internal documents that surfaced this week in a Washington state lawsuit against the tobacco industry apparently show two of the world's largest tobacco companies worked together to fix cigarette prices in several Latin American countries.

The documents, dating from 1988 to 1992, describe agreements between Philip Morris and Brown & Williamson affiliate British American Tobacco Co. Ltd. to set prices and divvy up the market in Argentina, Costa Rica, Panama and other countries.