Mustard sale has foreigners in hot pursuit

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The Independent Online
ANOTHER famous brand name in the British larder - Colman's mustard - looks likely to pass into foreign ownership. It will join a procession of some of Britain's best-loved condiments and concoctions that has marched over recent years into the control of boardrooms across the Channel and the Atlantic, where Britain's splendid but insular traditions of brown sauce and meat-extract beverages must be something of a mystery.

Over the past six years multinational food companies have bought HP and Lea & Perrins sauces, Jacob's Crackers, Marmite and Bovril. Frank Cooper's Oxford marmalade went to a foreign company some years before, as did Brown & Polson mixes and Crosse & Blackwell ketchup, salad cream and soups.

Last week brought the news that Colman's extremely English mustard is being sold off by its parent company, Reckitt & Colman, and the most likely buyers are French and American food corporations. The mustard is notoriously powerful. The Colman family made its fortune, so it is said, from the wasteful amounts Victorian diners left on their plates.

'Regrets?' pondered Sir Michael Colman, chairman of Reckitt, whose family has made mustard for the past 180 years in Norwich, where its factory workers' cottages still stand. 'Yes, there is always an anxiety about things like that, because we have a record of looking after businesses and the people who work in them.'

Colman's, like many of the most established brands in the larder, first appeared in the 19th century as industrial production methods were used to produce ready-made sauces and condiments: they were the first convenience foods. But they have succumbed to the giant international companies, which can afford to produce on a massive scale.

One of the most famous brand names is to disappear altogether. Last week Nestle, the Swiss owner of Crosse & Blackwell, decided to close the Crosse & Blackwell factory at Milnthorpe, Cumbria, because there were 'no long-term prospects' for the brand's salad cream and ketchup. More than 500 workers will be sacked.

Graham Millar, managing director of Nestle Foods Division, said: 'There is no viable future for the factory. The cold sauce operation has been unprofitable in recent years.'

Reckitt & Colman is selling its English mustard brand to help finance the purchase of the American disinfectant group L&F Household from Eastman Kodak for pounds 1bn. Reckitt hopes to raise pounds 150m from its UK food division, which includes Colman's mustard and Robinson's barley water - celebrated for appearances at Wimbledon.

The two front-runners for Colman's mustard are France's Groupe Danone, which owns HP and Lea & Perrins, and the US-based Corn Products Company, owner of Bovril, Marmite, Brown & Polson and Frank Cooper's.

Florence Kremer, Danone's spokeswoman in Paris, said: ''We are studying the proposition'.

While it is possible that the Anglo-Dutch Unilever may buy Colman's mustard, the likeliest contender to keep control of the famous brand in Britain is Ranks Hovis McDougall, whose brands include Bisto gravy, Paxo stuffing, Saxa salt, and Mr Kipling's cakes. The original Mr Kipling, the poet rather than the fictitious cake- maker, must be hoping in his English heaven that Ranks Hovis comes to the rescue.

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Business, page 6

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