UPDATE 2-Canadian dairy Saputo eyes M&A in U.S., Canada, Australia

Thu Jun 5, 2014 3:57pm EDT

(Recasts with M&A focus)

By Rod Nickel

June 5 (Reuters) - Canada's largest dairy producer, Saputo Inc, still digesting a major purchase in Australia, is examining other possible acquisitions there, in the United States, Canada and Latin America, Chief Executive Officer Lino Saputo Jr. said on Thursday.

In the United States, potential acquisitions could cost less than C$100 million ($91.28 million) to as much as C$4 billion, Saputo said in a conference call to discuss quarterly results.

"The (U.S.) industry still is very fragmented," he said. "So I think there are some great opportunities for us that could be small, medium or large."

Saputo may also look for acquisitions in Canada worth around C$100 million and is eager to add to its new foothold in Australia, where seven or eight players control up to 95 percent of the dairy industry, he said.

Latin American countries like Brazil are attractive as well due to their growing middle class, Saputo said.

In February, Saputo bought 88 percent of Australia's Warrnambool Cheese and Butter Factory Company Holdings Ltd for C$449.6 million. Just over a year earlier, it purchased U.S.-based Morningstar Foods LLC for C$1.4 billion.

Saputo reported higher adjusted earnings for its fiscal fourth quarter as cheese and whey prices rose.

For the fourth quarter of 2014, adjusted net earnings rose 18 percent to C$152.8 million ($140.2 million) in the quarter ended March 31, or 78 Canadian cents a share, from C$129.2 million, or 65 Canadian cents, a year earlier.

Revenue surged 21 percent during the quarter, when Saputo won a bidding war for majority control of Warrnambool, to nearly C$2.5 billion.

On an adjusted basis, analysts were expecting Saputo to earn 75 Canadian cents per share on revenue of C$2.44 billion, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.

The Montreal-based company, whose brands include Dairyland and 1/2 Moon cakes, is among the top three cheese producers in the United States.

Saputo's shares eased 0.2 percent to C$59 in Toronto in late trading. The stock reached an all-time high of C$60.04 in mid-May.

Not including adjustments such as plant closure and acquisition costs, net income climbed 19 percent to C$119.8 million or 61 cents per share.

($1 = 1.0955 Canadian Dollars) (Reporting by Rod Nickel in Winnipeg, Manitoba; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Jonathan Oatis)