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AMSTERDAM -- Shares in the world's third biggest food retailer Royal Ahold NV fell sharply on Friday as disappointing U.S. sales figures and disclosure concerns combined to rattle already anxious investors.
Ahold, which owns the Netherlands' largest supermarket chain but generates about 60 percent of its turnover in the United States - under store brands including Stop & Shop, Giant-Landover and BI-LO -- reported that sales in its core U.S. food service business fell 6.1 percent when the boost from acquisitions was removed.
The group published a surprise trading update and speculation was rife that Chief Executive Cees van der Hoeven had leaked these sales numbers to some analysts earlier in the week -- raising fears Ahold could be subjected to a regulatory inquiry amid overall anxiety about disclosure irregularities.
Ahold denied the numbers had been leaked by its CEO and the Dutch market regulator declined comment on the speculation. "That is not correct," an Ahold spokesman said of talk by television broadcaster CNBC that the numbers were leaked. "There were some presentations and he floated some soft numbers but the hard numbers were only published today."
Ahold maintained its outlook for 2002, but some analysts were concerned that the sales disappointment could pressure earnings when the company reports full third-quarter results on Nov. 26. Ahold cut its full-year forecast in July when it was forced to buy out its troubled Argentinian partner.