French food group Danone takes second chance with China Mengniu Dairy

HONG KONG (REUTERS) - Danone Group has agreed to invest 325 million euros (S$523.97 million) in two deals with China Mengniu Dairy Co Ltd, marking a comeback for the French group in China where scandals have hurt confidence in food safety.

The deals with Danone are seen as an attempt by Mengniu - twice hit by accusations that it sold tainted milk - to restore trust and join forces with a leading international brand eager to tap China's rising demand for milk and yoghurt to counter falling dairy sales in Europe.

"Mengniu can, through a foreign partner, bring in new technology and technical know-how on the way to producing much safer dairy products to ease consumers' concerns over the quality of locally made products, while Danone can open its door to access the vast China market," said Mr Andrew To, director of research at Hong Kong-based Emperor Capital Group.

A joint venture between Danone and state-owned Chinese food enterprise COFCO Corp will take an 8.3 per cent stake in Mengniu, whose liquid milk products rank first in China by sales volume.

That would give the French company a 4 per cent holding, which it said it aimed to eventually increase.

COFCO will remain Mengniu's single largest shareholder with 27.83 per cent.

Danone, the world's largest yoghurt maker with brands such as Actimel and Activa, also set up a joint venture with Mengniu for the production and sale of chilled yoghurt in China. The French firm will own 20 per cent of this venture, which aims to grab a market share of around 21 per cent.

Mengniu accounted for 16.8 per cent of China's yoghurt market in 2012, up from 16.5 per cent in 2011 and 15.9 per cent in 2010, according to Euromonitor. It expects the market to grow to 53.9 billion yuan (S$11.01 billion) this year and to 71.6 billion yuan by 2015, more than double its value in 2010.

Danone has been interested in expanding its presence in China for years. It pulled out of a yoghurt-making partnership deal with Mengniu more than five years ago after it failed to gain government approval and the French company said the progress was slower than it had expected.

In April, Danone reported strong first-quarter sales growth, supported by a boom in demand for baby food in Asia, particularly in China. Dairy division sales fell in Europe, where Danone plans to cut 900 jobs to cope with the economic downturn.

Shares of Mengniu jumped as much as 11.4 per cent to hit a 17-month high of HK$27.30 (S$4.43), outpacing a 1.8 per cent gain for the benchmark Hang Seng Index. The stock is now eight times above its 2004 initial public offering price of HK$3.925.

China's milk industry was battered by a 2008 scandal involving chemical-laced products that killed at least six children and sickened nearly 300,000.

Mengniu, which was one of about 20 companies implicated in that scandal, joined forces with Danish-Swedish dairy group Arla Foods in June last year to develop dairy products in China, in another bid to regain consumer confidence.

Arla said the tie-up with Danone, which competes with Nestle and Unilever, would not affect its partnership with Mengniu.

"We are confident that Danone's engagement in Mengniu will increase consumers' trust in locally produced dairy products - for the benefit of all players in the Chinese dairy market," said executive vice-president in Arla Foods and Mengniu board member Finn Hansen.

Earlier this month, Mengniu bought a US$410 million (S$515 million) stake in China's largest unpasteurised milk producer from private equity firms KKR & Co LP and CDH Investments, its latest bid to rebuild trust.