HJ Heinz has refused to comment on reports that it is in talks with heavily-indebted UK food group Premier Foods over the possible acquisition of Premier's Sharwood's Asian sauces unit.

Reports this week have suggested that Heinz approached the UK's largest food producer several weeks ago - an offer that was initially dismissed.

With GBP1.7bn (US$10.43bn) of debt, Premier is coming under increasing pressure to improve its balance sheet.

A spokesperson for Premier told just-food last month that the company would consider selling off non-core business to raise capital.

However, Premier has already turned down an unspecified number of offers for various parts of its business, including a GBP250m bid for its Mr Kipling brand from McVitie's maker United Biscuits.

Meanwhile, Heinz has indicated that it is on the acquisition hunt, having built up a sizable war chest to fuel growth.

Laying out the group's expansion strategy for the next two year's at the US ketchup maker's AGM in August, Heinz president and CEO William Johnson emphasised the company's aim to make strategic acquisitions in both developed and emerging markets.

"With a healthy balance sheet and abundant opportunities to explore in both the developed and developing world, we are confident in our ability to execute value-added acquisitions," Johnson said.

However, Heinz has remained coy on its ambitions towards Premier. The company "does not comment on market rumour and speculation", a spokesperson told just-food today (9 December).

Premier shares climbed 9.2% to 17.75 pence yesterday following reports of the possible acquisition.

Premier was not immediately available for comment as just-food went to press.