* Estimates 4th-qtr profit $0.55/share vs forecast of over $0.60
* Says fourth-qtr sales in consumer foods business down 7 pct
* Says profits in private brands to be lower than expected for several years
* Shares fall as much as 7.4 pct (Adds details, analyst and spokeswoman comments; updates shares)
By Sruthi Ramakrishnan
June 18 (Reuters) - ConAgra Foods Inc warned that its adjusted fourth-quarter profit would be lower than its forecast, as the company struggles with its big push into private-label foods and sales fall in its consumer foods business.
The company’s shares fell as much as 7.4 percent to $30.41 on the New York Stock Exchange on Wednesday.
The maker of Hunt’s tomato ketchup and Slim Jim beef jerky estimated an adjusted profit of about 55 cents per share for the quarter ended May 25, lower than its forecast of “in excess of” 60 cents.
“This revision is even more dire than we expected,” Morningstar analyst Erin Lash wrote in a note.
ConAgra boosted its private brands business with the $5 billion acquisition of Ralcorp Holdings in January last year as recession-hit shoppers bought cheaper store-branded products.
ConAgra, however, cut its full-year profit forecast twice, blaming weak sales in its private-label business and a steeper-than-expected fall in sales of its own brands.
The private brands business, which makes cereals, pasta, snacks and sauces that retailers sell as their own, accounted for 24 percent of ConAgra’s total sales in the third quarter.
Profit from the business is likely to drop by about $60 million in the fourth quarter due to discounts and costs related to the Ralcorp acquisition, ConAgra said.
The company said in February that its private-label business was taking longer than anticipated to reach expected operating profit levels, forcing it to cut prices to stem a fall in sales volumes.
Chief Executive Gary Rodkin said in May that discounting was likely to pressure margins in the next several quarters.
The lower profit estimate was not because of “new or deeper challenges; it’s simply a reflection that it will take time to grow margins,” ConAgra spokeswoman Teresa Paulsen said in an email on Wednesday.
Sales volume in consumer foods, the company’s largest business, dropped 7 percent in the fourth quarter. The business sells meals, snacks and desserts such as Act II popcorn and Blue Bonnet spread.
A change in consumer attitudes towards heavily processed foods is likely to hit sales at ConAgra and General Mills Inc , Kellogg Co and Campbell Soup Co, Bernstein Research analyst Alexia Howard wrote in a note.
ConAgra said it expected to take $681 million in non-cash impairment charges in the fourth quarter, mostly in the private brands business.
The company said profits in its private brands business were likely to be lower in the next several years than it had expected. Profit is expected to grow in the mid-single digits for the year ending May 2015.
ConAgra is scheduled to report its results on June 26.
The company’s shares were down 7.3 percent at $30.45 in noon trading. (Additional reporting by Amrutha Gayathri in Bangalore; Editing by Sriraj Kalluvila and Kirti Pandey)