US meat products maker Hormel Foods has reported a 4% rise in quarterly earnings, helped by the strong performance of its refrigerated foods business.

The Austin, Minnesota-based company posted net earnings of US$70.4m, or 50 cents a share, for the fourth quarter to 25 October, compared with net earnings of $68.0m, or 49 cents a share, a year earlier.

Total sales for the quarter were $1.2bn, compared to $1.0bn in the year-ago period.

For the full year, net earnings were $185.8m, or $1.33 per share, compared to $189.3m, or $1.35 per share, a year earlier. Sales totalled $4.2bn compared to $3.9bn in the year-ago period.

"Strong demand for our refrigerated, value-added products and a faster-than-expected turnaround in the turkey markets provided a strong finish to our fiscal year," said Joel W. Johnson, chairman of the board, president and chief executive officer.

"Refrigerated Foods was the clear stand-out with operating profit up 183%, or $33.6m, compared to last year's fourth quarter," he continued.

"We are optimistic about 2004 now that protein markets are closer to normal. We expect the performance of our Refrigerated Foods and Jennie-O Turkey Store segments to reflect the improvements we have made to the product mix within these segments over the last couple of years. However, Grocery Products will face higher raw material costs compared to last year pressuring margins. We will also increase investment in this segment for additional marketing and product development initiatives.

"After assessing industry factors and our own business plans and prospects, our earnings guidance for the first quarter is in a range of $0.32 to $0.36. For the full year of fiscal 2004, our earnings guidance is in a range of $1.44 to $1.60," Johnson said.