MINNEAPOLIS – Pet owners have spent more time with their furry friends this past year, something General Mills says is helping fuel sales of its Blue Buffalo pet food as customers swap out their old brands for more natural products.

The Golden Valley-based food company noted these trends in its fiscal 2021 third quarter results posted Wednesday morning.

Pet ownership rates have increased in the past year, with more than half of pet owners saying their bonds with their pets have deepened during the pandemic. This, General Mills executives say, makes many of them willing to spend more money to feed their cats and dogs a more natural diet.

"One of the most compelling growth opportunities in our portfolio resides within our pet segment," Jeff Harmening, chief executive of General Mills, said of its Blue Buffalo brand, which gained market share during the first nine months of its fiscal 2021.

General Mills' $4.5 billion net sales marked an 8% increase for the quarter ended Feb. 28 slightly beat Wall Street expectations, while its earnings per share of 82 cents — an increase of 6% over a year ago — missed expectations by a couple of cents.

The company's stock was down more than 3% in premarket trading.

The maker of Betty Crocker, Pillsbury and Totino's is just now beginning to lap the start of the pandemic when stay-at-home orders sent demand for groceries soaring. Such elevated levels will make financial results difficult for the next several quarters as sales will almost certainly be lower by comparison to a year ago.

On Tuesday, General Mills announced plans to sell its 51% stake in Yoplait's Europe business in exchange for full control of Yoplait in Canada. The company will also no longer have to pay distribution royalties on Yoplait and Liberte brands in the U.S. and Canada.

"Importantly, [this divestiture] allows our Europe and Australia segment to increase its focus on the businesses where we see the greatest potential for growth," Harmening said. "With this sale, we will deliver on our commitment to divest approximately 5% of our net sales, and we remain committed to further portfolio reshaping through acquisitions and/or divestitures to enhance our growth profile."

All of its business segments tallied growth in the latest quarter except convenience and food service, which sells food products to schools, institutions and cafeterias where traffic remains hampered by the pandemic.

General Mills also offered full-year outlook for the first time this fiscal year that has so far been too unpredictable to forecast through. The company expects full-year organic net sales to increase about 3.5% and its full-year operating profit margin remain somewhat flat.

The company also announced it is resuming its share buyback program.

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