US poultry processor Pilgrim's Pride has reported higher-than-expected quarterly earnings, driven by higher sales and operating efficiencies.

The company reported net income of US$72.3m, or $1.09 per share, for the fourth quarter to 2 October, compared to $25.1m, or $0.61 per share, for the same period of the previous year. In mid-October the company raised its fourth-quarter earnings guidance to a range of $1.02 to $1.07 per share.

Included in the latest quarter's earnings is a non-recurring gain of $14.8m net of tax, or 22 cents per share, related to an insurance payout stemming from the October 2002 recall. Excluding this non-recurring recovery, fourth quarter earnings were $57.5m, or 87 cents per share.

For its full fiscal 2004 the company reported net income of $125.4m, or $2.00 per share, compared to net income of $56.0m, or $1.36 per share, in the previous year.

"Our record performance in both the fourth fiscal quarter and annual period ended 2 October 2004 reflects both the successful integration of the ConAgra chicken division acquisition and the benefits of pursuing a growth strategy centred around our Prepared Foods business, which grew more than 25% on a pro forma basis over the past fiscal year," said O.B. Goolsby, president and chief executive officer of Pilgrim's Pride.

"Responding to our customers' growing demand for high-quality, convenient meat proteins will remain a key priority for us going forward. Looking ahead to fiscal 2005, we expect the continuation of favourable consumer trends, rising export demand and projections for a further drop in commodity grain prices to create a positive growth environment that will enable us to continue delivering value to our shareholders," Goolsby added.

The company's fourth-quarter net sales were $1.49bn, an increase of 110.0% from $709.5m in the same period last year, with the increase resulting primarily from the acquisition of ConAgra Foods' chicken division, along with positive industry and consumption trends. Net sales for fiscal 2004 were $5.36bn, compared to $2.62bn a year earlier.