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February 24, 2012

CAGNY: Heinz open to Pfizer baby-food morsels

Heinz chief executive Bill Johnson has suggested the US food giant would be interesting in buying any assets that could emerge if Pfizer's infant nutrition unit is sold.

By Dean Best

Heinz chief executive Bill Johnson has suggested the US food giant would be interesting in buying any assets that could emerge if Pfizer’s infant nutrition unit is sold.

Johnson said Heinz, which has been named as a potential buyer of the business, did not believe buying the whole division would be the “best use of shareholder value”. However, speaking at the Consumer Analyst Group of New York investor conference, Johnson said Heinz would look at any assets that could emerge in the wake of any takeover.

“If pieces of that business were to become available for anti-trust reasons or other reasons, we might have an interest. And let me underline might,” Johnson said.

Pfizer has yet to officially announce it would sell its infant nutrition unit. However, since the US pharma giant revealed last year it was looking at the options for the business, speculation has grown that it could be offloaded, with Mead Johnson, Danone and Nestle named as potential suitors.

Reuters this week claimed Mead Johnson and Danone are set to join forces and battle for the business with Nestle. Mead Johnson and Danone have declined to comment. Pfizer insisted the Reuters report was “speculation” and said it had to make a decision on what it will do with the unit, which is the world’s fifth-largest infant nutrition business.

When Pfizer announced it was looking what to do with the assets, Heinz was also named as a potential suitor. However, Heinz, the world’s sixth-largest infant nutrition manufacturer, has not featured in recent speculation.

Johnson said Heinz would not “bet the ranch” on a major transaction in infant formula but would look at smaller deals. He claimed the prices that “have been rumoured” for assets like Pfizer’s infant nutrition business did “not make sense” and said he could create more value for investors with deals in condiments and sauces.

“I just don’t see the need to take shareholder funds and put them in a category where we are good but not necessarily great,” he said. “We’re still testing our way through China, doing well but it’s still a learning process and our business in Italy still performs well in formula. That’s opposed to putting funds some place else that I know can create value through synergies and through growth.

“I wanted to get it clear in the marketplace because it’s been bandied about quite a bit. For us to pay the price or to do some kind of structural transaction for that business on a total basis would not create value for the company.”

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