Canada-based natural and organic food group SunOpta has booked an increase in first-quarter earnings, which were boosted by higher sales and improved margins.

For the three months to end March, SunOpta’s net profit rose to US$6.1m, up from $5.4m booked during the comparable period of last year. Excluding the impact of discontinued operations, net earnings totalled $5.9m, versus $5.1m last year.

Operating income jumped 15.8% to $13.4m on an operating margin of 4.9%, compared to $11.6m and a margin of 4.5% in the first quarter of 2011. EBITDA rose to $18.3m, up from $16.4m last year.

The company said it achieved “record first-quarter revenues”, with sales rising 5.4% to $274.5m. Excluding the impact of currency exchange, commodity-related pricing, acquisitions and discontinued business, consolidated sales increased 7% in the period.

SunOpta said sales gains were driven by “strong growth” at its packaged food business and higher steel sales at its Opta Minerals unit. This growth was partially offset by product rationalisation measures in the SunOpta Foods division, which in tern resulted in higher earnings, and lower ingredients volumes, the group added.

President and CEO Steve Bromley said the firm’s results reflect “continued growth in our core natural and organic foods categories” and the “positive impact of operational improvements”.

“During the first quarter we took a number of steps to streamline our operations and organisation structure and we are pleased with our results to date. We remain confident in our focus on natural and organic foods and our strategy to improve operating margins, earnings predictability and return on assets,” he said.

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