updated 2/3/2006 10:13:22 AM ET 2006-02-03T15:13:22

ConAgra Foods Inc., one of the nation's largest packaged-foods companies, said Thursday that it will sell off its refrigerated meats business. The unit generated about $1.9 billion in sales last year.

The sale includes 15 plants in nine states and about 6,000 employees of the Omaha-based company, and ConAgra plans to part with its Armour, Butterball and Eckrich brands.

ConAgra spokesman Chris Kircher said the company expects that most of those 6,000 employees would become employees of the new owner after a sale which is expected to take 10-12 months to complete.

The sale of the refrigerated meat business is one of the first major changes ConAgra's president and chief executive, Gary Rodkin, has made since joining the company in October.

"Our actions today reflect our commitment to simplify operations and the concentrate in areas where we have the strongest competitive positions," Rodkin said. "They put us in a much better position to execute and drive consistent and sustainable growth."

During the past 7 1/2 years, ConAgra changed from a decentralized conglomerate based in agricultural commodities into a retailer of packaged food with centralized research, sales and administration.

The proposed sale of the refrigerated meats business will not affect ConAgra's Healthy Choice, Hebrew National, Brown 'N Serve, Slim Jim or Pemmican brands. Last week, ConAgra announced it was selling Cook's, a smoked-meat business, to Smithfield Foods Inc. That sale included three plants employing 1,540 people.

The company also announced plans Thursday to move its grocery food headquarters from Irvine, Calif., to Naperville, Ill., which is already home to ConAgra's dairy and meats businesses. That move will be completed by June 1.

The grocery division includes ConAgra's shelf-stable products, such as Hunt's, PAM and Chef Boyardee.

ConAgra also plans to move about 135 jobs to Omaha to further consolidate shared functions such as product quality and development and sales and operations planning.

ConAgra will consolidate its retail and culinary products divisions into one "consumer foods" unit. The retail and foodservice sales staffs will also be combined into one sales organization.

Company officials have said ConAgra is in a "muscle-building phase" where the company is identifying its best brands, such as Healthy Choice, Chef Boyardee and Egg Beaters, and deciding where to invest its capital.

ConAgra made its announcements after the markets closed. Company shares fell 24 cents to close at $20.74 Thursday on the New York Stock Exchange.

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