The chief executive of HJ Heinz, the food company facing the prospect of a management challenge from activist investor Nelson Peltz, on Tuesday acknowledged that returns to shareholders had fallen behind, but launched a vigorous defence of his strategy.

William Johnson was speaking following the release of lower-than-expected quarterly earnings. He has tried to tackle the company’s stagnant share price by selling businesses and seeking innovation in core products such as tomato ketchup and baby foods.

He said: “Rest assured, we’ll work this plan relentlessly because I’m not satisfied with the shareholder returns we’ve seen to date. Our performance in recent years has put us in the middle tier of the food group, and nobody is more committed than I am to dramatically improve total value.”

Mr Johnson would not make any specific references to Mr Peltz, who has yet to decide whether to challenge the Heinz board.

Mr Peltz’s ambitions could be encouraged by Heinz’s results, which fell short of Wall Street expectations. Underlying third-quarter earnings fell 13.8 per cent on the back of higher commodity prices and interest expenses.

A spokesman for Mr Peltz declined to comment.

But Mr Peltz – who recently campaigned for change at Wendy’s International – may have to show his cards as early as this weekend. That is the deadline for shareholder proposals to be included in Heinz’s proxy material.

One US investment banker focusing on food companies said the spotlight on Heinz from the threat of action by Mr Peltz could encourage prospective buyers to make a takeover approach.

Rather than larger peers such as Nestlé and Unilever, he suggested that medium-sized rivals such as Campbell Soup might be interested.

In the fiscal third quarter, Heinz earned 50 cents a share excluding special items, falling short of 58 cents a year ago and behind analyst expectations. Net income fell 23 per cent to $116.6m, or 35 cents a share, from $152.4m, or 43 cents a share, a year earlier.

The drop in net income was the result of a 43 per cent rise in interest expenses and a $47.4m charge for asset disposal.

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