Canadian food company George Weston has reported a 9% rise in fourth-quarter earnings, helped by strong sales at its Loblaw retail chain.

The company posted net earnings of C$252m (US$189.7m), or $1.87 per share, for the fourth quarter to 31 December, compared to $231m, or $1.70 per share, in the year-ago period.

Fourth-quarter sales increased 10% to $7.3bn, compared to $6.6bn a year earlier, including the positive impact of around 8% due to the additional week in 2003.

Sales were impacted positively by its Loblaw food distribution unit, which reported a sales increase of 13% and negatively by its Weston Foods unit, which posted a sales decline of 3%, mainly due to the negative impact of foreign currency translation.

Loblaw's sales for the fourth quarter rose 13% to $6.4bn, including an 8% positive impact from the additional week in 2003. The company said all regions experienced sales growth over the prior year period as Loblaw continued its strategic investment in lower prices. Fourth quarter same-store sales growth was 3.3%. During the quarter, 24 new corporate and franchised stores were opened and 20 stores were closed.

George Weston said that in the year ahead, Loblaw is well positioned to increase its food and general merchandise market share across all divisions.

"Weston Foods will continue to focus on strengthening its competitive position as the business realigns its customer base and improves its manufacturing and distribution assets. Our expectation for overall sales and earnings growth continues to be positive," the company said.