UPDATE 1-INTERVIEW-ConAgra CEO says price increases hurt sales

Tue Feb 21, 2012 9:52pm GMT

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(Adds detail on acquisitions)

By Martinne Geller

BOCA RATON, Fla., Feb 21 (Reuters) - ConAgra Foods Inc (CAG.N) Chief Executive Gary Rodkin said that price increases contributed to the weak sales seen across the North American packaged food and beverage industry, but said there could be other factors.

"It's very hard to pinpoint the exact reason," for the weakness, Rodkin said in an interview at the annual Consumer Analyst Group of New York conference in Boca Raton, Florida.

"Usually when you see a sharp move one way or the other, you can point to something very specific, like the government cut food stamps. But we don't have something like that to really hang our hat on," Rodkin said. "Everybody is trying to ask everybody else what happened."

"The best answer I can give you, and it doesn't explain it totally, is the cumulative effect of pricing actions over the last six or nine months," he added. "I presume that is a contributor to it. But it's hard to say it's the key driver." [ID:nL2E8DL8LY]

Against the backdrop of weak consumer spending and higher commodity costs many companies, including ConAgra, are looking to acquisitions for growth. ConAgra recently acquired a private label pretzel company, and Rodkin said the company was open to buying more private label companies as long as their products are in profitable categories.

Rodkin declined to comment on any specific acquisition targets, but he did say that the dominance of ConAgra's Orville Redenbacher's popcorn brand would probably preclude it from being able to buy another microwave popcorn brand.

Speculation about the future of Diamond Foods Inc, maker of Pop Secret popcorn and Kettle potato chips, has emerged since the stock has tumbled in recent months amid an accounting scandal.

ConAgra, maker of Hunts ketchup, Peter Pan peanut butter and Banquet frozen dinners, is also looking to grow by introducing new products, such as Healthy Choice frozen yogurt. That product should be on shelves next year, the company said.

(Reporting By Martinne Geller; Editing by Phil Berlowitz and Carol Bishopric)

((martinne.geller@thomsonreuters.com)(646 223-6023)(Reuters Messaging: martinne.geller.reuters.com@reuters.net)) Keywords: CONAGRA/

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