By James Davey
LONDON (Reuters) - Associated British Foods said almost zero first half profit from sugar represented the "low water mark" for the business, forecasting an improved performance as prices improve.
As well as its sugar activities, the group owns the Primark fashion chain, food brands such as Ovaltine, Ryvita and Twinings, and major agriculture and ingredients businesses.
It reported flat adjusted earnings per share of 61.1 pence for the 24 weeks to March 24 with a near wiping out of profit from its sugar operation offset by growth in its other businesses. Group revenue rose 1 percent to 7.53 billion pounds.
Adjusted operating profit in sugar slumped to just 1 million pounds from 106 million pounds in the same period last year.
The group had cautioned that sugar profit would be significantly lower this year, reflecting lower European Union prices for contracts negotiated at the end of the last financial year. However, an upward trend in EU sugar prices should benefit results going forward.
"No further year-on-year decline in the second half and then we would expect to see improvement into next year," Chief Executive George Weston told Reuters.
Europe's sugar industry is going through a period of restructuring as it seeks to meet the challenges of low prices in a liberalised market.
"As a consequence of all the work we've been doing over the last five years to reduce costs our financial position in our European sugar businesses is significantly better than many of our European competitors," said Weston.
Primark, which accounts for about half of group revenue and profit, reported operating profit up 25 percent to 426 million pounds, while grocery's contribution rose 5 percent to 167 million pounds.
For the full 2018-19 year AB Foods maintained its overall guidance for the group of earnings in line with the 2017-18 outcome.
Shares in AB Foods, majority owned by Weston's family, were up 1.6 percent at 2,547 pence at 0845 GMT, taking gains for the year so far to 24.6 percent and valuing the business at 20.2 billion pounds.
(Reporting by James Davey; Editing by Paul Sandle/Keith Weir)