The UK's biggest egg supplier is being primed for sale with an expected £400 million price tag, according to reports.
Chairman and Conservative donor Peter Dean and co-founder Michael Kent are set to open talks with private equity bidders and overseas rivals about selling a large stake in Hertfordshire-based Noble Foods, the Daily Telegraph reported.
Noble, which owns the Happy Egg and Big & Fresh brands, collects 72 million eggs a week from about 500 farms across the country, delivering them mainly to supermarkets.
Investment bank Rothschild is reportedly leading the sale, with buyout groups including PAI and CapVest said to be circling.
Noble has more than 46% of the UK's egg market and according to the newspaper made underlying earnings of about £50 million last year, despite pressure on egg farmers from the soaring cost of feed.
The price paid by egg packers to farmers soared by 26% in the final three months of 2012 versus a year earlier, recent figures showed.
A dozen eggs commanded almost 90p in the October to December quarter, up from 71.4p a year earlier, according to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
The UK produces almost 10 billion eggs per year from around 2,000 farmers, a market said to be worth about £800 million.
Noble Foods was formed in 2006 when Deans Food merged with Michael Kent's Stonegate, which owns the other half of Noble. The company's two main packing stations are in Lincolnshire and Fife.
In 2010 Noble bought puddings firm Gu Chocolate Puds and later that year also acquired high-end desserts business Didier's Patisserie. Gu is not up for sale as part of the deal.