H.J. Heinz Co. is seeing red — and not just in its ketchup bottles.
The Pittsburgh condiment maker has been putting considerable distance between its brand name and Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts.
The company sent out 50 letters to news organizations in the past month to squash rumors circulating on the Internet and radio talk shows that it is involved with Mr. Kerry’s campaign.
Mr. Kerry’s wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, is heiress to the $500 million family ketchup fortune. She was married to Republican Sen. H. John Heinz III, who was killed in a 1991 plane crash.
The Kerrys and their family are not involved in Heinz’s management, board of directors or charitable organization, the company said in the letters.
Mrs. Kerry, who is chairwoman of the Howard Heinz Endowment and Heinz Family Philanthropies, her children with Mr. Heinz and the Heinz family’s charitable groups own less than 4 percent of the company’s stock, according to the letter.
The company’s move came after the Heinz Endowments, two private foundations unrelated to the company’s foundation, were accused of funding Peaceful Tomorrows, a nonprofit group of families of victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks.
Peaceful Tomorrows strongly criticized President Bush’s use of footage from the attacks in his television ad that began running in early March.
The Heinz Endowments have denied accusations that they gave any funds to the group, said spokesman Doug Root.
But the similarities between the names and rumors that Heinz Co. would profit if Mr. Kerry wins the Democratic nomination or the general election prompted the company to take the pre-emptive measure, said spokesman Jack Kennedy.
The company has received about 800 calls on the campaign connection since the presidential primaries began in January, Mr. Kennedy said. Heinz receives about 5,000 consumer calls monthly.
“There was not a lot of feedback” from consumers praising Heinz or promising boycotts, but the company was beginning to see a trend of people connecting the brand name to Mr. Kerry’s campaign, Mr. Kennedy said.
“We wanted to make sure all sides understand our public-ownership situation and our nonpartisan stance,” he said.
Although some individual Heinz officials have contributed to political campaigns, the company shies away from making any collective endorsements, Mr. Kennedy said.
The only presidential campaign that the company has supported was its commercial spoof in 1988 for Morris the cat, who represented Heinz’s 9 Lives cat food.
Despite the flak, sales have not slipped because of the Kerry connection, Mr. Kennedy said.
San Francisco ketchup competitor Del Monte Foods Co., which has operations in Pittsburgh, also reported no sales changes for political reasons, said spokeswoman Melissa Murphy.
The “separation of Kerry and ketchup” is advantageous to both parties, said David Kusnet, a former speech writer for President Clinton and visiting fellow at the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington think tank.
Companies such as Heinz want to keep their brands neutral to avoid sparking consumer backlash, and Mr. Kerry would want to remain distant from a company that has overseas operations, Mr. Kusnet said.
The majority — 57 of 79 — of Heinz’s factories are overseas, because 60 percent of the company’s sales are outside the United States and the company wants factories close to the local markets, Mr. Kennedy said.
On the campaign trail, Mr. Kerry has proposed restructuring the corporate tax system to penalize “Benedict Arnold” corporations that send jobs offshore and reward companies that create jobs in the United States, while giving all U.S. businesses a 5 percent tax cut.