Premier Foods feasts on 15 per cent rise in Quorn sales

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The Independent Online

Families turning to Quorn as a healthy alternative to meat have driven sales of the fungus-based product 15 per cent higher since the start of the year, Premier Foods disclosed yesterday.

Since the food manufacturer acquired the brand last year, Quorn has been reborn as a low-fat, high-protein ingredient rather than a vegetarian quirk aimed at people who wished they could still eat sausages. The company has launched a new range of ready-meals from lasagnes to quiches and claims to have every mealtime from breakfasts to Sunday roasts covered.

Robert Schofield, Premier Foods' chief executive, said Quorn was being regularly bought by 19.3 per cent of the nation's households, up from 17.7 per cent the previous year. Quorn is the group's biggest brand, dwarfing sales of even iconic products such as Ambrosia custard and Branston pickle.

"The key is the new families and new households we are bringing into our market. In a survey two-thirds of UK households have said they want to eat more healthily so we have a big market," Mr Schofield said. In the six months to 1 July, Quorn sales rose 15 per cent on an underlying basis.

The company is hoping to repeat the success it has had so far with Quorn with Cauldron, a company that also makes meat-free meals, which it bought in December. It is switching production to a site in East Anglia, from which it intends to extend the tofu-based range into new products and ready meals.

Premier Foods said group interim like-for-like sales, which do not include the contribution from Quorn and Cauldron, rose 3.1 per cent. This was ahead of its 2 to 2.5 per cent target but reflected sharp price increases to cover its higher energy bills following the oil price surge.

The company is on the verge of completing a £460m deal to acquire Campbell's UK brands, which include Oxo stock cubes and Homepride cooking sauces. It is also working on a potential £1bn joint bid for United Biscuits's UK biscuit arm in conjunction with Lion Capital, the private equity firm. Mr Schofield knows the group, which makes Jaffa cakes among others, well because he used to run it.

In the six months to 1 July, Premier lifted its pre-tax profits by 123 per cent to £27.9m, helped by its £199m purchases of Quorn and Cauldron. It said its Branston beans had held their market share flat at 10 per cent. It is poised to go "head to head" with Heinz with heavy promotions planned for the autumn, Mr Schofield said.

Premier held out the possibility it would sell its fresh produce division, which sells potatoes and returned to profit in its first half.

Despite warning that cost pressures and July's abnormally hot weather would weigh on its second half, the group said it was on track to hit City forecasts of full-year profits before tax of £87m.

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