Nothing says "day before Thanksgiving" like Spam, at least according to Hormel Foods(NYSE: HRL). The food processor and canned meats king reported on-target fourth-quarter earnings today. Tasty!

Sales in the quarter ended Oct. 26 were off slightly to $1.04 billion from $1.06 billion. (That's a lot of Vienna sausages and Dinty Moore stews, people.) Net income remained virtually flat at $68 million, compared to $68.8 million a year earlier. Per share earnings were $0.49, as expected, matching last year's fourth quarter.

Hormel would've had a better quarter and fiscal year were it not for hog prices. There's been a glut of oinkers rooting around, driving prices down in the open market. Exactly which hog parts go into Spam weren't disclosed, but suffice to say, the company uses lots of 'em.

Logically, weakened prices seem helpful, but Hormel had contracts for pre-specified hog prices -- prices above the current market -- so it was hogtied (ahem) into paying more.

According to the company, for fiscal 2002, it paid $81.1 million more than the market price for hogs. Operating profits for its refrigerated food products dropped 7% for the year and 27% for the quarter, thanks to the pricey porkers.

Looking ahead, Hormel hopes to improve its position in the deli and ethnic foods markets, fast-growing segments of the market. And, no, "ethnic foods" doesn't mean Sweet and Sour Spam or Stir-Fried Vienna sausages. The company has several ethnic lines, among them an olive oil (Carapelli), Mediterranean foods(Peloponnese), and a grain called Marrakesh Express. In Hormel's fourth quarter, its ethnic-food lines saw a 7% sales increase.

Greater attention and marketing for its ethnic foods, coupled with a (hopefully) stabilizing hog market, should help Hormel's first quarter. The company has a wide expected-earnings range of $0.35 to $0.43 per share. In last year's first quarter, Hormel earned $0.36 a share.