UPDATE 3-Flour power: ConAgra, Cargill, CHS to create mega-miller
* Firms to merge North American flour milling operations
* Deal expected to close later this year
* Milling operations had total sales last year of $4.3 bln
* ConAgra, Cargill each to have 44 pct stake, CHS 12 pct
* Deal encompasses 44 flour mills, 3 bakery mix facilities
By Carey Gillam
March 5 (Reuters) - Giant U.S. food and grain-handling companies ConAgra Foods Inc, Cargill and CHS Inc plan to combine their North American flour milling businesses into a new venture that would control more than a third of U.S. capacity, dwarfing all competitors in size and market reach.
Dubbed Ardent Mills, the operation would encompass 44 flour mills with locations from California to Massachusetts as well as bakery mix and specialty bakery facilities, with footholds in Canada and Puerto Rico.
News of the plan caught many in the industry by surprise, although officials said they have been in discussions about a combination for well over a year, and prompted instant speculation that U.S. officials might push back due to antitrust concerns. Continued...