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Reckitt's food sale kicked off without private equity - sources

LONDON, May 31 (Reuters) - The sale of Reckitt Benckiser Group's North American food business, which could fetch more than $3 billion, has kicked off with information packages going out to industry players, according to sources familiar with the matter.

The sale of the food business is aimed at helping the British consumer goods company pay down debt from its planned $16.6 billion purchase of Mead Johnson.

Parties that may be interested in the unit, home to French's mustard and Frank's RedHot sauce, include McCormick, Conagra Brands, Unilever, Hormel Foods, Pinnacle Foods and Campbell Soup, according to the sources, who declined to be identified as the matter is private.

Reckitt declined to comment, as did Morgan Stanley, which sources say is advising it.

Conagra, Unilever, Hormel, Pinnacle and Campbell Soup declined to comment. A spokeswoman for McCormick was not immediately available.

Reckitt, which also makes Scholl footcare products and Nurofen tablets, is not courting private equity firms, said the sources, given the strong initial interest from industry players, which are usually able to pay more due to synergies with their existing businesses.

Private equity firms are under pressure to spend the large piles of cash they have amassed, but the sources said they would be unlikely to match any bids from the other companies, which also sell packaged foods.

The business had 411 million pounds ($528 million) of revenue last year, with like-for-like growth of 5 percent, according to Reckitt's annual report, which also said the unit's operating margin shrank by 50 basis points last year to 28.7 percent due to investments aimed at growing it and expanding internationally, most notably in Canada.

First-round bids are expected in coming weeks, said one of the sources.

($1 = 0.7789 pounds) (Additional reporting by Lauren Hirsch in New York and Pamela Barbaglia in London; Editing by Mark Potter)