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Campbell warns of challenging quarter as winter storm disrupts production

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The logo and ticker for Campbell Soup Co. are displayed on a screen on the floor of the NYSE in New York
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(Reuters) - Campbell Soup Co said on Wednesday it expects current-quarter sales to be pressured due to supply chain disruptions caused by a major winter storm and deep freeze that engulfed several U.S. states.

The soups and snacks maker, which benefited from rising demand for its ready-to-eat or quick-fix meals during the pandemic, said its plant in Texas, where it makes Prego pasta sauces, was closed for two weeks in December.

An increasing number of COVID-19 cases also led to fewer staff operating its plant during winter, a key period for the soup maker when consumers seek comfort food.

"We crossed the double-digit line on absenteeism, which was really the highest we had seen," Chief Executive Officer Mark Clouse told analysts, adding that it led to delayed shipments.

"It really did reduce a little bit of our firepower as we had expected to be able to get in front of consumption and ship a bit ahead of it."

The company forecast sales to fall 3.5% to 2.5% in fiscal 2021, following a year when demand surged as consumers stockpiled on soups and snacks before the pandemic-induced lockdowns. A gradual reopening of restaurants and the rollout of vaccines could reduce consumers' reliance on packaged food.

J.P. Morgan analyst Ken Goldman said the forecast would be a let down to some investors, considering the food-at-home category has performed better than anticipated in general.

Campbell expects adjusted annual earnings between $3.03 and $3.11 per share, compared with analysts' average estimate of $3.03 per share, according to IBES data from Refinitiv.

Second-quarter sales rose 5.4% to $2.28 billion, but fell below expectations of $2.30 billion.

Shares of Campbell were down about 2% in early trading.

(Reporting by Nivedita Balu in Bengaluru; Editing by Vinay Dwivedi)