TORONTO — After steadily raising its stake in the company over the past 15 years, Maple Leaf Foods on Oct. 21 said it has begun to explore strategic alternatives that may lead to the sale of its 90% holding in Canada Bread Company Ltd.

Maple Leaf said the decision to explore options for its Bakery segment comes as the company reaches the “final phase” of a seven-year project to enhance its protein business by increasing its scale and improving its productivity and profitability. As it nears completion, Maple Leaf said the effort to improve the meat business is “expected to deliver significant returns to shareholders.”

Michael H. McCain, president and chief executive officer of Maple Leaf, also offered an optimistic outlook for the baking business.

“We are confident that our Bakery business can deliver significantly higher levels of profitable growth; the only question is how best to realize the future value of this business,” he said. “The recently completed Bakery strategy will require organizational focus and resources to implement. This process gives us the opportunity to determine the best path forward for Maple Leaf, our shareholders and our Bakery business.”

Central in the “Bakery strategy” cited by Mr. McCain was a major reworking of the company’s baking capacity. Beginning in 2010, the company announced plans to build a 375,000-square-foot baking plant in Hamilton, Ont. The plant opened in September 2011, and other, smaller, plants were closed. In the wake of the plant opening, Canada Bread initiated a strategic review of the bakery business in 2012, looking for ways to position itself in the face of changing market conditions. Approaches to marketing, product mix and innovation were cited by the company as areas of exploration.

“We are confident this (strategic review) will result in further actions in 2013 and beyond to realize stronger sustained profitable growth,” Mr. McCain said jointly in 2012 with Richard A. Lan, president and chief executive officer of Canada Bread.

Commenting on the possible sale of Canada Bread, David L. Emerson, chairman of the Maple Leaf board, said the board and management “are united” in their support in the process.

In connection with the announcement, Canada Bread said it has established a special committee comprised solely of independent directors.

In 2012, the Maple Leaf Meat Products business generated operating earnings of C$121.3 million on sales of C$3,039.5 million. The Bakery business had operating earnings of C$97.6 million on sales of C$1,567 million.

Maple Leaf’s 90% ownership of Canada Bread represents a significant increase from levels in the 1990s. The company has had a policy of buying shares on the market “from time to time” when market conditions are attractive. In 1997, Maple Leaf owned slightly less than 70% of Canada Bread.

At that time, Canada Bread was adopted by the company as its corporate name from Corporate Foods Ltd. — the company name beginning in 1969. The Canada Bread name dates back to 1911, when the company was established as an amalgamation of five smaller baking businesses.