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Mead Johnson profit up; starts its own price-fix probe

By Atossa Araxia Abrahamian and Maria Ajit Thomas

Oct 24 (Reuters) - Mead Johnson Nutrition Co, the maker of Enfamil baby formula, reported a 15 percent increase in quarterly profit on Thursday and raised its full-year earnings forecast, largely due to strong sales in China and Hong Kong.

The company also said it had launched its own investigation into alleged price-fixing by its Chinese subsidiary. It said it was complying with requests from the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission for information on the matter.

Last August, China fined six companies, including Mead Johnson, a total of $110 million following an investigation into price-fixing and anti-competitive practices by foreign makers of baby formula.

Mead Johnson said its third-quarter net income rose to $161.6 million, or 79 cents per share, from $140.3 million, or 69 cents per share, a year earlier.

Earnings in the latest quarter were reduced by 11 cents per share by the fine the company paid in the Chinese probe.

Excluding one-time items, earnings were 91 cents per share, beating analysts' average estimates of 80 cents, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.

Sales rose 14 percent to $1.05 billion. Foreign exchange pushed sales down 2 percent, while higher prices lifted them 4 percent, the company said. Analysts were expecting $998.8 million.

The company raised its forecast for the rest of the year, saying it now expects earnings of $3.30 to $3.37 per share before one-time items, on sales growth of 9 to 10 percent. It previously forecast $3.22 to $3.30 per share on sales growth of about 8 percent.

Mead Johnson said it has hired outside lawyers to conduct the investigation of its Chinese unit. The probe is being overseen by members of the company's board of directors.