Fruit, vegetable, tuna, and pet food purveyor Del Monte Foods (NYSE:DLM) (not to be confused with Motley Fool Hidden Gems recommendation Fresh Del Monte Produce (NYSE:FDP)) shared dual-sided fourth-quarter and year-end numbers with investors today.

Side 1: Del Monte Foods' sales for the latest quarter were up 21%, and adjusted diluted earnings were up 57%. Sounds like a growth company, doesn't it?

Side 2: The company's long-term goal is revenue growth of 1% to 3%, with earnings growth in the "mid to high single digits." So Del Monte Foods is a slow growth company.

Side 1: Company guidance for 2005 is for sales growth of 3% and earnings of $0.81 to $0.86 a share (up from $0.76). The high end of earnings -- a 13% increase -- beats "high single digits" growth.

Side 2: Del Monte expects next quarter's sales to increase 2% and earnings to decline from $0.07 a share to a range of $0.03 to $0.05 a share. Analysts were expecting $0.12 to $0.15 a share. Let's call the next quarter a major disappointment.

Side 1: The firm has seen exciting sales growth in tuna and pet food. Morris the Cat is coming back to pitch 9Lives cat food, and the company is increasing marketing costs "well in excess of 20%" to help drive its overall message.

Side 2: Higher commodity, packaging, and energy costs are hurting the bottom line. Del Monte is pushing through price increases, but Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT), which is a quarter of the company's sales, has a 60-day buffer built into its contract before price increases take effect.

Let's add this up. There are rising commodity costs, marketing costs are going to increase sharply, earnings are going to decline in the first quarter, and the company can post above-projected long-term earnings growth for the year? Yeah, right.

Investors did not like the story (and, maybe, didn't buy it) and sent the stock down more than 10% in early trading. At the low end of earnings guidance, Del Monte's stock is trading for a well-below market average of 12 times earnings.

Maybe investors should note the company's $190 million in free cash flow. The company used it, and asset sales, to reduce debt (spiked by assets purchased from H.J. Heinz (NYSE:HNZ) in 2002) by $271 million. With projected free cash flow of well more than $200 million next year, the company can continue to reduce debt.

For comparison, consider that Kraft Foods (NYSE:KFT) and General Mills (NYSE:GIS) have high debt loads and sell for a higher multiple of earnings. Del Monte's story may have two sides, but a price-to-earnings multiple expansion might be in order if it can meet its slow-growth projections and keep reducing debt.

Fool contributor W.D. Crotty does not own any of the stocks mentioned.