And so to bed: Ovaltine heads for disposal

Drugs group plans pounds 3bn sell-off of non-core brands

SWISS drugs giant Novartis is considering a pounds 3bn plus sale of its food operations, which include Ovaltine and Isostar sports drinks as well as Gerber, the US number one in baby foods.

The brands have been earmarked as non-core activities, following the group's creation from the pounds 35bn merger between Swiss rivals Sandoz and Ciba-Geigy.

The deal, finally completed after US approval last week, creates the world's second-largest drugs company behind Britain's Glaxo Wellcome, and the big-gest group in crop protection and seeds. In the UK, it is also known for chemists' brands such as Lypsyl, Savlon and Nicotinell anti-smoking patches.

On the nutrition side, however, only clinical products - drip feedstuffs and supplements mainly to hospitals - are now seen as fitting in with future strategy. "Medical nutrition is core. In my view it fits very well," said chief executive Daniel Vasella. "Novartis will be first a healthcare company and second a healthcare company."

Nestle is one likely buyer for the brands, which also take in Wasa and Roland crispbreads and Gerble, Cereal, Milical and Eden slimming foods in Europe, but is understood not yet to have made an approach.

Heinz and Nutricia, the Dutch firm that owns Cow & Gate, would also be interested separately in Gerber, which dominates the US market but has failed to create a global presence.

Nutrition accounted for pounds 1.7bn of total sales of pounds 16bn last year and made profits of pounds 200m. Of that, pounds 1.5bn came from the consumer brands, which analysts value at more than pounds 3bn.

The group has already sold its construction chemicals arm since the merger was first announced in March. North American corn herbicides will also go in a $780m deal to satisfy the US authorities.

The sidelining of the consumer brands, however, marks a reversal of strategy, but one welcome to the market. "It's quite a turnaround and for the better. It would be a very good move," one analyst said.

Ovaltine was invented in 1904 by the Swiss scientist George Wander. In the 1930s, millions of British children joined the Ovalteenies club, tucking in to their own bedtime Radio Luxembourg programme on Sunday nights.

The malt drink - marketed as Ovomaltine on the continent - is also a big seller in South East Asia, but with its old-fashioned image has lost ground to the likes of Horlicks and Chocolate Break in the UK.

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