Unilever sells Bertolli oil and vinegar for £500m

Unilever, the Anglo-Dutch conglomerate, lost a touch of Italian brio yesterday after selling its Bertolli olive oil and vinegar business for €630m (£500m), as part of its drive to sell non-core businesses.

While Unilever – the world's second largest consumer goods firm – is to keep Bertolli's margarine, pasta sauce and frozen meals, it is to divest all of its olive oil and seed oil businesses to Grupo SOS, the Spanish firm behind the Carbonell olive oil brand.

"The Bertolli brand remains a priority for Unilever with strong growth plans based on capturing the growing appetite for Mediterranean food products," it said in a statement. The Bertolli olive oil and vinegar businesses as well as the Maya, Dante and San Giorgio oil operations turned over €380m in 2007.

Vindi Banga, Unilever president for foods, home and personal care, said Grupo SOS "will further strengthen" the olive oil business with its expertise in the sector. Grupo SOS chairman Jesus Salazar said the deal was "absolutely strategic" to its business.

A spokesman said Unilever had decided to get rid of the biggest selling olive oil brand in the world as the business was "getting close to a commodity," while it had more potential to grow the sales of the remaining Bertolli products. This is the latest move by the group, which sells products from Sure deodorant to Ben & Jerry's ice cream, to streamline its business by selling subsidiaries that generate annual sales of €2bn. The plan was announced at the group's quarterly results last August.

The group sold Boursin, its French cheese business, to Le Groupe Bel for €400m last November. Keesvan der Graaf, president of Unilever Europe, said the move had been prompted by "the decision to focus our portfolio on priorities outside the cheese category". The same month it agreed to sell the US marinades businesses Lawry's and Adolph's to McCormick & Company for €410m.

Unilever also announced last month it was to sell its palm oil plantation business in the Ivory Coast, which has a yearly turnover of €85m, to a joint venture between the Ivorian group Sifca and two Singapore companies.

Another business on the block is its North American laundry operation, which was put up for sale when the divestment plan was announced last year. The spokesman said the process "had moved forward but was still ongoing".

The diverse company has been attempting to slim down for a decade, the spokesman said, but really intensified the drive in the past three years with the appointment of Patrick Cescau as the chief executive.

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