Heading into the big soup season, it looks like Campbell Soup (NYSE:CPB) has its business back to at least a simmer.

For the company's fourth quarter, sales were up 5%, with the bulk of the growth coming from pricing and currency benefits. Gross margins improved meaningfully, as did operating margins, as Campbell has taken steps to achieve better cost control. At the bottom line, there was a profit of $96 million, up about 28% after adjusting the year-ago figure for charges and gains.

I'm not looking to toss a turnip into the soup here, but there is an aspect to the fourth-quarter report that concerns me. Namely, that volume looks to be pretty weak across the company's major business lines. Volume was down 5% in the U.S. soups, sauces, and beverages business, up only 1% in the baking/snacking business, and down 1% in the international soups and sauces business.

Now on the other hand, it has to be mentioned that pricing was up in each of those three businesses. So perhaps Campbell management has been looking to "reset" business at a higher price point -- a move that can hurt volume sales in the short run, but can make the business more profitable over time. In any case, however, food companies ultimately prosper by selling more food, not less, so clearly volume has to improve if Campbell is to continue growing.

For what should be a fairly simple business, the company doesn't offer a lot of simple answers for the casual investor-analyst. Campbell has a valuable brand image, a double-digit return on assets, and solid cash flow generation. The company also has hefty debt and a pretty spotty recent track record of growth.

So where should Campbell belong in the pantheon of food companies? Well, I've liked both Unilever (NYSE:UL) (NYSE:UN) and Kellogg (NYSE:K) for a while and that hasn't changed. I still don't like Smucker (NYSE:SJM) very much. It would appear, then, that Campbell might now fit into a list with the likes of Fresh Del Monte (NYSE:FDP), Del Monte Foods (NYSE:DLM), and Heinz (NYSE:HNZ) -- companies where I see some promise and value, but also notable drawbacks that must be carefully evaluated.

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Fool contributor Stephen Simpson has no financial interest in any stocks mentioned (that means he's neither long nor short the shares).