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Sara Lee 4Q Earnings Slide 41% On Commodity Cost Pressure

DOW JONES NEWSWIRES Sara Lee Corp.'s (SLE) fiscal fourth-quarter earnings slid 41%, though core earnings came in line with analyst expectations, as the packaged foods company saw continued cost pressure on its bottom line. Looking ahead, Sara Lee forecast fiscal 2012 net sales from continuing operations of $8.5 billion to $8.75 billion--or $8 billion excluding its international bakery operations--coming in short of the $9.37 billion currently expected by analysts polled by Thomson Reuters. Shares tumbled 5.6% to $16.35 in premarket trade following results. The stock is down 1.1% since the start of the year. Once a hodgepodge of household products and food brands, Sara Lee has worked to sell off businesses and narrow its focus. The company is currently in the process of splitting apart, separating into an international coffee and tea business and a North American business that includes the Jimmy Dean and Hillshire Farms brands. "We are heartened by the fact that we have been able to deliver solid results for fiscal 2011 while managing difficult commodity conditions and the internal challenges of the spin off," Executive Chairman Jan Bennink said Thursday. Earlier this week, Sara Lee agreed to sell its North American private-brand refrigerated dough business to fellow food maker Ralcorp Holdings Inc. (RAH) for about $545 million, a sale that was long-expected from the company. For the quarter ended July 2, Sara Lee reported a profit of $111 million, or 19 cents a share, down from a year-earlier profit of $187 million, or 28 cents a share. Adjusted earnings from continuing operations rose to 20 cents from 7 cents a year earlier. Net sales from continuing operations improved 8.7% to $2.3 billion. Analysts polled by Thomson Reuters expected a per-share profit from continuing operations of 20 cents on revenue of $2.22 billion. Gross margin fell to 30.2% from 33.6%. Like many other food makers, Sara Lee has lately faced a slew of economic headwinds, including shaky consumer mood and rising commodity costs. Sara Lee raised prices an average of about 3% in its first fiscal half and had anticipated further increases in the remainder of the year. In the company's North American retail business, net sales slipped 2.2%, while international-beverage-segment net sales popped 24%. -By Mia Lamar, Dow Jones Newswires; 212-416-3207;

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