Asda deny Safeway bid off track

SUPERMARKET chain Asda has dismissed reports that its attempt to bid for takeover target Safeway could be in jeopardy.

The group, owned by US store giant Wal-Mart, has called for a "special meeting" with the Competition Commission amid fears that it plans to block a potential bid, the Financial Mail on Sunday reported yesterday.

Asda yesterday confirmed that it had asked for an extra meeting with the commission, but said the meeting was "a perfectly normal part of the process" and said the request was made because previous meetings had not given it enough time to cover all the issues it wanted to discuss.

The commission is currently examining the takeover battle for Safeway in order to assess which of the potential bidders (Sainsbury's, Tesco, Morrisons and Asda) could take over the supermarket chain with minimum competition and customer disruption.

It was expected to indicate whether heavyweights Asda and Tesco would be able to bid without having to sell a large number of Safeway's 479 stores.

It is due to present its findings to the Department of Trade and Industry tomorrow. Asda has said it would be likely to have to sell Safeway stores in areas like Scotland, where it already has a significant presence, if its bid is to be allowed to proceed.

The group has already had a preliminary hearing with the commission to discuss potential issues that would be raised by a takeover bid.

It has also attended a further "remedies hearing" to discuss possible solutions to any issues that would potentially prevent it from bidding.

An Asda spokeswoman yesterday confirmed that the supermarket had requested an extra remedies hearing, to which the commission had agreed. She said that the group had done so because, at the first hearing, it did not have "quite enough time" to discuss all the issues.

"This is an absolutely standard part of the process," she insisted. "Other people did not request another hearing, but that's up to them.

"We have not said what we will or won't do if we are clear to bid, but we are interested in bidding and we believe we have a very good case."

At the heart of the inquiry is whether the deals would create an excessively dominant supermarket group which would damage shoppers and suppliers. Also included are issues as varied as whether the commission should consider competition for non-food sales as well as groceries, Internet home shopping and the price of petrol in its inquiry.

Morrisons, headed by Sir Ken Morrison, kicked-off the battle for Safeway in January when it offered £2.9 billion to buy Britain's fourth biggest chain.

Since that offer, three rival operators have also declared their interest.

The Government has already given the all-clear to proceed with a bid to BHS owner Philip Green.

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