US food retailer and distributor Nash Finch has reported a rise in fourth-quarter and full-year earnings, helped by increased sales and a reduction in health insurance expense.

The company posted net earnings of US$13.0m, or $1.05 per share, for the fourth quarter to 3 January, compared to $7.6m, or 64 cents per share, in the year-ago quarter. Total fourth-quarter sales rose to $1.01bn from $880.8m a year earlier.

For the full year, Nash Finch posted earnings of $35.1m, or $2.88 per share, compared to $23.6m, or $1.95 per share for the previous year. Total sales for fiscal 2003 rose to $4.0bn from $3.9bn in fiscal 2002.

The company’s retail operations had a tough year, posting sales of $966.3m in fiscal 2003 compared to $1.03bn in fiscal 2002. Same-store sales decreased 10.6%.

“These declines reflect the continued difficult competitive environment, in which an ever-increasing number of supercenters and other alternative formats compete for price-conscious consumers,” Nash Finch said.

The company said it expects full-year 2004 earnings to be between $2.46 and $2.54 per share.