August 26, 2014 / 1:50 PM / 3 years ago

KKR agrees to buy 18 pct of China chicken firm for $400 mln

* KKR’s investment follows earlier deals in pork and dairy

* Capital will expand production and build large scale farms

* Food safety a key investment theme for KKR -exec

By Stephen Aldred

HONG KONG, Aug 26 (Reuters) - Private equity giant KKR & Co LP has made its fourth food safety-linked investment in China, agreeing to buy 18 percent of chicken producer Fujian Sunner Development Co Ltd for $400 million, the two firms said on Tuesday.

The deal comes as food safety scandals plague the country. U.S. food maker Heinz apologised to Chinese consumers last week and said it would tighten controls over suppliers after it was forced to recall some infant cereal from store shelves due to excess levels of lead.

KKR’s investment, for new shares in the company, will be used to increase production at Fujian-based Sunner, which supplies KFC and McDonald‘s, to provide safe chicken products through large-scale farms.

“Partnering with companies that meet China’s demand for increased food safety is one of our key focuses,” said David Liu, CEO of KKR Greater China.

Chicken is the fastest-growing protein source in China, but is only 17 percent of total meat consumption, compared to nearly 40 percent in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Large-scale farms produce 95 percent of chicken in the United States, but only 30 percent in China.

Buyout firms such as KKR, Carlyle Group and Olympus Capital have become regular investors in China’s food chain, employing Western technology and supply chain management to address the country’s food safety scares.

KFC parent Yum Brands Inc, McDonald’s Corp, Wal-Mart Stores Inc and Fonterra Co-operative Group Ltd have all suffered recently - and such incidents can seriously dent sales.

Retailers have even taken to offering insurance to customers who buy infant milk powder, showing the lengths to which companies will go to address concerns about food safety in China.

KKR earlier this year invested $150 million in COFCO Meat, a subsidiary of China’s state-owned COFCO Group. The firm previously invested in China’s food supply chain, through milk producer China Modern Dairy Holdings Ltd. (Reporting by Stephen Aldred; additional reporting by Twinnie Siu in HONG KONG and Lee Chyen Yee in SINGAPORE; editing by Louise Heavens)

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