Tobacco supplier Universal to enter food business

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Local,Virginia,Food and Drink,Tobacco

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — The world's leading supplier and processor of leaf tobacco is venturing beyond the cash crop into the food business.

Richmond, Va.-based Universal Corp. is opening a new juice and dehydration facility in North Carolina that will initially focus on sweet potatoes.

The new subsidiary, Carolina Innovative Food Ingredients Inc., expects to invest about $20 million over two years into the facility. Production is expected to begin during the first quarter of 2015.

Officials said the new business will be able to offer ingredients to the food and pet food manufacturing industries in the U.S. and internationally while providing tobacco growers with a new market for sweet potatoes, which are used in juices, baked goods and other products.

"Universal continues to seek out growth opportunities that enhance our company's value and help to sustain tobacco growers," Universal CEO George Freeman III said in a statement late Wednesday.

Nearly half of U.S. sweet potato production comes from North Carolina. Sweet potatoes are often grown in rotation with tobacco.

The plan to enter the food business is the second venture the company has launched in the last year.

In August, Universal announced plans for a joint venture called AmeriNic Inc. with botanical extraction company Avoca Inc. to produce liquid nicotine for the electronic cigarette industry.

Universal Corp., founded in 1918, buys tobacco from farmers for use in manufactured cigarettes and other tobacco products. It conducts business in more than 30 countries.

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Michael Felberbaum can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/MLFelberbaum .

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