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Mondelez to sell MEA Kraft cheese biz; Pernod Ricard rejects Elliott's criticism

TOP NEWS

* Mondelez International Inc. said it agreed to sell its Kraft-branded cheese business in the Middle East and Africa region to Denmark-based dairy company Arla Foods for an undisclosed sum. Mondelez's cheese manufacturing facility in Bahrain is included in the transaction. But the company's cream cheese brand Philadelphia and Jocca cottage cheese brand, and the newly opened biscuits manufacturing site in Bahrain, will remain under Mondelez's ownership. The Bahrain site will start producing Tang powdered beverages, according to the release. The transaction is expected to close in the coming months, subject to regulatory approvals.

* In a response to activist hedge fund Elliott Management Corp., Pernod Ricard SA confirmed in a statement that its senior management had held discussions with Elliott over the past few weeks but also indicated that it stood by recent steps it had taken to improve performance. The company said it had added three directors over the last three years and was committed to board refreshment. Pernod Ricard added that it had realized €200 million in profit-and-loss savings and an equal amount in cash savings, with nearly two-thirds of cost savings "already achieved and 50% invested into the business."

FOOD RETAIL & DISTRIBUTION

* Australian retail group Woolworths Group Ltd. opened a new concept store called "The Kitchen" in Sydney's Double Bay area. The Kitchen will feature a range of locally sourced organic fresh produce, healthy meals and an expanded Macro Wholefoods product selection. It will also have an on-site florist, a fresh juice bar and a dine-in cafe. Woolworths said the new store will also adopt sustainable initiatives such as cutting down food waste and using smarter packaging.

* British online grocer Ocado Group PLC reported a 12% growth in its retail revenue in the fourth quarter ended Dec. 2 to £390.7 million, up from £348.9 million a year ago, in line with its guidance. In July, Ocado forecasted retail revenue growth to be in the range of 10% to 15% in 2018 with expected gains in supply capacity and market share. The company reported double-digit growth in average orders per week, which rose from 283,000 in fourth quarter 2017 to 320,000 in this quarter. The company added that the new capacity it had brought on stream at its robotic distribution centers in Andover and Erith, near London, enabled it to achieve double-digit growth in new customer acquisitions in the fourth quarter.

* Swedish grocery chain ICA Gruppen AB (publ) said it would increase investments in 2019 to 4 billion Swedish kronor, up from 3.5 billion Swedish kronor in 2018 as it adapts to a fast-changing market. ICA Gruppen said priorities for 2019 included rapid online growth and improving its home delivery offering, increasing the company's loyalty program and personalized offerings, and the use of artificial intelligence and automation in logistics.

BEVERAGES

* Coca-Cola European Partners PLC said it appointed Nathalie Gaveau as its nonexecutive director, effective Jan. 1. She will succeed Veronique Morali, who resigned from the bottling company, effective Dec. 31.

* U.S. coffee giant Starbucks Corp. is set to open a nearly 23,000-square-foot Starbucks Reserve Roastery in New York on Dec. 14. According to the release, this is Starbucks' fourth roastery and the second location in the U.S. The new store features two coffee bars offering seven brewing methods, an Arriviamo Bar inspired by the Italian tradition of aperitivo and the Milanese artisanal bakery Princi.

* Distiller Bacardi Ltd. announced that Ed Brown, president and CEO of Patrón Spirits International and The Patrón Spirits Co., will retire from his position Dec. 31. Bacardi acquired the tequila brand Patrón in April 2018. Bacardi said Brown intends to stay engaged in the company after the retirement to advise the company on the Patrón brand, the tequila category and the spirits industry as a whole. The company did not name a successor yet.

AGRICULTURAL PRODUCTS

* China purchased over 1.5 million tons of U.S. soybeans since U.S. President Donald Trump and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, struck a trade war truce earlier this month, Reuters reported. This move brought some relief to U.S. farmers who have struggled to find buyers for their record-high harvest. China, according to Trump, was already buying a "tremendous amount" of U.S. soybeans, the report added.

PACKAGED FOODS

* The number of cases of salmonella infection related to the beef products of JBS Tolleson Inc, the U.S. arm of JBS SA, reached 333, Reuters reported, citing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The company recalled 5.3 million pounds of beef over salmonella risk early this month after it first issued a recall of approximately 6.9 million pounds of beef products sold in the U.S in October. In all, 91 people have been hospitalized since illnesses were first reported, but no deaths were reported, the report said.

* Barry Callebaut AG said Patrick De Maeseneire was re-elected as the company's chairman. The Swiss chocolate maker also named Suja Chandrasekaran, Angela Wei Dong and Markus Neuhaus as new board members, following the conclusion of the company's annual general meeting. Also, James Donald stepped down as a director of the company following his recent appointment as president and CEO of U.S. supermarket chain Albertsons Cos. LLC. During the meeting, the chocolatier's shareholders approved a 20% increase in dividend to CHF24.00 per share, payable to shareholders Jan. 9, 2019.

RESTAURANTS

* Fast-food group Restaurant Brands New Zealand Ltd. said its total sales for the third quarter were NZ$181.5 million, rising 4.7% from the same period last year. The company's year-to-date sales came in at NZ$612.5 million, up 9.5% over the previous year on a total basis. The Auckland-based company's Australian KFC outlets produced sales of NZ$44.3 million, up 2.4% on a same-store basis. Restaurant Brands recently announced plans to bring 60 YUM! Brands Inc.-owned Taco Bell restaurants to Australia and New Zealand by 2024.

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The day ahead

Early morning futures indicators pointed to a mixed opening for the U.S. market.

In Asia, the Hang Seng rose 1.29% to 26,524.35, while the Nikkei 225 was up 0.99% to 21,816.19.

In Europe as of midday, the FTSE 100 fell 0.23% to 6,864.05, and the Euronext 100 was down 0.40% to 949.24.

On the macro front

The jobless claims report, the import and export prices report, the Energy Information Administration natural gas report, the treasury budget report, the U.S. Fed balance sheet and the money supply report are due out today.

Click here to read about today's financial markets, setting out the factors driving stocks, bonds and currencies around the world ahead of the New York open.

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