US natural and organic foods distributor United Natural Foods has reported a rise in first-quarter earnings and sales.

The company posted net income of US$6.6m, or 33 cents a share, excluding special items, for the first quarter to 31 October, compared to $5.4m, or 28 cents per share a year earlier.

Including special items, net income rose 70.1% to $6.8m, or 34 cents per share, compared to $4.0m, or 21 cents per share, a year earlier.

Net sales for the first quarter of fiscal 2004 were $381.4m, an increase of 22.6% from the $311.0m recorded in the year-ago quarter.

"This is an excellent start to our new fiscal year as we continue executing on our business plan and growth objectives. During the quarter, we achieved a 22.6% year over year growth in sales and a 23.2% increase in net income, excluding special items. This strong growth continues across all sales channels where our growth rates to independents, conventional mass market and supernaturals were 30%, 19% and 9% respectively. With our focus on natural and organic products, we intend to be the leading source for these products over the long term," said CEO Steven Townsend.

"Operationally, we continue to work at building efficiencies that, over time, will serve to lower operating expenses and improve our operating margins. Concurrently, we are focused on maintaining and improving our service levels to all of our customers across all of our distribution centres," Townsend added.