SYDNEY/MANILA (Reuters) - A global rush for Australasian food assets continued on Monday with Pacific Equity Partners (PEP) selling a New Zealand company to Philippine snack and beverage maker Universal Robina Corp for NZ$700 million ($609 million).
The sale would be the second for Australia's largest buyout firm during a period of strong interest in makers of high-quality food products needed to satisfy the demand of Asia's growing middle class.
In May, PEP sold Australian ice-cream maker Peters Food Group Ltd to Britain's R&R Ice Cream PLC [OAKCPR.UL] for a reported A$450 million, doubling its investment in two years.
PEP's latest sale of Griffin's Foods Ltd - whose brands of snacks include Eta, Huntley & Palmers and Nice & Natural - would yield a similar return after having bought the company from France's Danone SA in 2006 for NZ$385 million.
"We're confident (Griffin's) growth story will continue under the ownership of (Universal), facilitating further growth into ASEAN markets," PEP Managing Director David Brown said in a statement, referring to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
The sale is part of a major asset selldown at PEP, which so far this year has listed cleaner-caterer Spotless Group Ltd and sanitary products maker Asaleo Care Ltd.
But it is Australasian food assets that have drawn particular international attention in recent months.
In May, China's Wilmar International Ltd and Hong Kong's First Pacific Co Ltd agreed to buy baker and dairy company Goodman Fielder Ltd for A$1.32 billion ($1.24 billion) .
In January, Canada's Saputo Inc fended off eight other international suitors in a protracted bidding war for control of Warrnambool Cheese and Butter Factory Company Holdings Ltd.
In the same month, China's state-owned Bright Food Group Co Ltd [SHMNGA.UL] bought yoghurt and cheese maker Mundella Foods for an undisclosed sum, three years after paying A$530 million for 75 percent of Manassen Foods.
Universal Robina, a $7.9 billion company owned by the Philippines' fifth-richest person, John Gokongwei Jr., is set to become the latest foreign mover in the Australasian food market by buying Griffin's.
New Zealand is "a country trusted worldwide in having high credibility when it comes to food quality, safety and authenticity," Universal President and Chief Executive Lance Gokongwei said in a statement.
Universal, a unit of Philippine conglomerate JG Summit Holdings Inc, said it would acquire Griffin's by buying the latter's holding firm NZ Snack Food Holdings Ltd in cash.
Offshore unit URC International Co Ltd will use long-term debt financing and internal sources to fund the acquisition, which will involve an initial sum of NZ$100 million with the balance paid after receiving local regulatory approval.
"(Universal) has been looking for opportunities to explore potential acquisitions and partnerships in line with our vision to be a significant regional player in snack foods and beverages," Universal's Gokongwei said.
"We believe Griffin's is at the forefront of global consumer trends in snacking," he said in the statement. "We are very excited to introduce and grow these brands in Asia."
Trading of shares in Universal was suspended on Monday pending an announcement. The shares have gained 40 percent so far this year compared with a 16 percent rise in the benchmark Philippine Stock Exchange Composite Index.
Reporting by Byron Kaye in SYDNEY and Erik dela Cruz in MANILA; Editing by Christopher Cushing