ConAgra Foods, the US food giant, saw third-quarter profits fall by more than a third but underlying earnings beat analyst expectations.

The company today (26 March) booked net income of US$193.2m for the there months to 22 February, down 37.5% on the $309.1m reported a year earlier.

However, excluding one-off items, ConAgra said diluted earnings per share from continuing operations reached $0.40, up from $0.34 a year earlier. Analysts polled by Reuters had forecast $0.36 a share on average.

ConAgra saw sales and earnings from its consumer division rise during the quarter. The business, which includes brands like Healthy Choice and Peter Pan peanut butter, generated 6% more in operating profits than a year ago.

While operating profit stood at $245m, sales reached $2.01bn, a 5% rise on a comparable basis, ConAgra said.

However, price rises boosted the figures, with sales volumes down 4% due to the removal of some of ConAgra’s low-margin popcorn businesses. The US peanut butter salmonella scandal, which had no links to ConAgra, also hit sales of the company’s Peter Pan brand.

Nevertheless, CEO Gary Rodkin said he was “pleased” that profits from ConAgra’s consumer food business had risen. Product launches and easing inflation left the unit in good stead, Rodkin said.

“We are positioned for even more improvement from that segment in the fiscal fourth quarter. Given our recent new product introductions, moderating inflation and strong cost savings, the foundation for this segment is much stronger than in recent years,” Rodkin said.

Earnings from ConAgra’s commercial food business fell 3% to $140m. The unit lapped last year’s third quarter, when it generated “exceptionally high” milling profits due to volatility in the wheat market.

Rodkin said the fall in profits from the commercial foods division had been “expected”.

“We are confident in the strength of our underlying commercial foods operations and the ability of our management to navigate the current challenging economic conditions,” he added.

ConAgra kept its full-year earnings forecast of diluted EPS, excluding one-off items, to be “slightly above” $1.50.