Food and drink have two hugely decisive factors going for them: we need them and they are made from increasingly valuable commodities.

Anyone investing in precious metals, minerals and oil had a bonanza last year. This year, food and drink are set to join these commodities as targets for City investment thanks to the likely scarcity - and therefore ­rising price - of staples such as sugar, coffee, cocoa and soya beans.

Last year was all about speculative companies on AIM claiming to have come into oil or gas. This year promises to be a quite different period. Instead of having to pinpoint faraway places on the globe and wonder how the geopolitical situation will influence investment, we are dealing with more easily understood processes in more familiar locations.

Grocery - whether you're talking manufacturers or retailers - is in sync with current City demands. Whatever else happens, we must continue eating and drinking; the income streams are reliable if unspectacular; many of the brands are established and solid. Private equity groups with their ready access to mountains of cash have made their interest known. This will continue this year. It's also a sector that, despite the presence of some huge players, is ripe for consolidation.

The move by Premier Foods for RHM at the beginning of December has left the players nicely poised this month. Forget what you hear about financiers - of course, some of them are innovative and daring but as a breed they operate according to the herd instinct.

The effect of the strike by Robert Schofield of Premier Foods will be to focus minds. People will be studying his track record as the arch-consolidator and wondering what will be next and if they could do the same.

His claim that he wants to extend the RHM brands of Hovis, Mr Kipling and Sharwood's will have resonated loud and clear. The lack of an obvious sticking point in terms of competition law will also have been noticed. Schofield is beginning to acquire a similar reputation in food as Hanson enjoyed in industrials and aggregates in the 1980s.

He's seen as a deal-maker, a predator, always ready to pounce. As such, he need do very little - bankers and fixers will come to him with proposals for future takeovers. His declared aim is to make Premier Foods the UK's biggest diversified food and drink supplier.

After RHM, on his shopping list could be UB's cakes division or Burton's Foods - either or both of which would fit easily into the enlarged Premier portfolio.

UB has been acquired by Blackstone and PAI but that doesn't mean they wouldn't look for a quick return if one were offered. The chances of UB being broken up and sold or disposed of in a job lot are strong.

Burton's has effectively put itself up for sale by announcing it was "looking at options for the future development of the business". That's code for "make us an offer".

Until Premier struck for RHM, the likely purchaser was thought to be the Hovis owner. Now, the probable buyer could be Premier - it has £100m ready for further acquisitions.

Another buyer for Burton's could be Northern Foods. It has sold 40% of its business to raise more than £200m and could use that cash to pick up Burton's. But neither Northern nor even Premier are themselves safe from takeover.

Northern has been a struggler for the past five years and is showing signs of being past its sell-by date as an independent. And while the City is admiring of Schofield's daring there are those who question if he's not taking on too much. If he wobbles, as Morrisons did when it acquired Safeway, then he could find himself, for once, on the wrong end of a bid approach.

One chief executive who will be looking anxiously for what 2007 will bring is Todd Stitzer, chief executive officer of Cadbury Schweppes. The avuncular American had a year to forget in 2006 - this, after being a star performer in 2005.

The heat in Europe in the summer played a part and led to a profits warning. But Snapple, the company's soft drink, continues to struggle, especially in the United States.

What really undid investor confidence was the salmonella scare that hit seven of its chocolate brands. Financial niggles in Nigeria (Cadbury sacked its MD and finance director there after the accounts were over-stated) didn't help either.

Stitzer has got to hope that another crisis of the company's own making doesn't befall it - or else the City may show its least forgiving side. Cadbury is in danger of acquiring a reputation among investors for being accident-prone - that is not a nice place for a company or its boss to be.

Tate & Lyle is another potential target because while it looks set to reap the benefits of higher sweetener prices negotiated with US companies, oversupply of sugar in Europe remains a concern.

As for the predators, Associated British Foods' food business may be weak compared with its Primark business and there is therefore a chance it could be offloaded, but it is well managed. Further consolidation may see it have a pop at Northern Foods. It could even make a play for Dairy Crest or Robert Wiseman, both of which have good brands and would allow it to widen its offering.

On the retail side, there are too many unknowns to make a major merger likely. Until the Competition Commission has pronounced its verdict in its current inquiry into the grocery market, the supermarket multiples look immune from attack.

However, one that may arouse the interest of a bidder is Morrisons. Having gone through real pain absorbing Safeway, it is showing signs of recovery. It's at the moment when management has done all the hard work and better times are promised that a predator may strike. What could be more tempting for a way into the UK market for Carrefour or Metro than a fitter Morrisons?

All this is the subject of speculation. What is certain is that food and drink manufacturing and retailing will continue to attract plenty of positive City interest.nTHE 2007 TAKEOVER STAKES

3?-?1 Northern Foods

Life never seems to get any easier for Northern.

Vulnerable to being taken out.


Foods division looks weak against all-conquering Primark stores side.

7?-?2 Dairy Crest

Strong brands would appeal to private equity buyer.

7?-?2 Robert Wiseman

Has made strong recovery after losing key supermarket contracts in 2005.

6?-?1 Cadbury Schweppes

Huge break-up potential could also interest a bidder.

7?-?1 MorrisonS

Has made massive improvements from a low base. Attractive proposition for any buyer, especially one from overseas looking to make immediate impact.

8?-?1 Tate & Lyle

Buoyant world specialist in sweeteners, would appeal to anyone trying to create a British foods brands multinational. Next for Premier?

8?-?1 Premier/RHM

Busy buying everything in sight but could itself be taken over, especially if it struggles to make merger work.

10?-?1 Uniq

Sale of St Hubert Foods to Dairy Crest is latest sell-off for the group. Continues to struggle. But pension liabilities may make it bid-proof.

Odds are from Cantor Index based on a deal being concluded by 30 June 2007