Hershey Co. (HSY) Wednesday posted sales slightly below analysts' estimates and slower growth, excluding acquisitions, than in recent quarters, sending its shares down more than 3 percent to their lowest point since December 2004.

Sales excluding acquisitions, or organic sales, rose about 4 percent. That is down from 6.5 percent in the third quarter and 7.6 percent in the second quarter.

"Although we continue to rate Hershey overweight, we believe the stock could see some pressure today given the deceleration in organic sales growth relative to recent quarters and lower than expected gross margins," Pablo Zuanic, food industry analyst at J.P. Morgan Securities Inc., said in a research note.

The maker of the Hershey Kisses, Twizzlers licorice and Reese's peanut butter cups, said net income rose to $172.8 million, or 70 cents a share, from $167.1 million, or 67 cents a share, a year earlier.

Earnings for the 2005 quarter included $17.6 million, or 4 cents a share, in restructuring charges and, separately, the costs of expensing stock options.

Excluding restructuring costs and stock options expenses, earnings were 76 cents a share in the latest period. Analysts, on average, predicted 75 cents a share, according to Reuters Estimates.

Sales rose 6.7 percent to $1.35 billion. Analysts, on average, estimated $1.38 billion. Hershey has in recent years posted some of the largest sales gains in the food industry, boosted by new products like Hershey's Kissables, a candy-coated chocolate kiss.

Hershey also made several acquisitions, including chocolate maker Scharffen Berger and macadamia nut company Mauna Loa, that have added to sales.

Hershey also said price increases should help combat what it expects to be broadly higher costs for commodities, energy and packaging. Hershey sees earnings per share rising slightly more than its 9 percent to 11 percent goal in 2006, excluding restructuring charges.

In 2006, the company forecast sales to increase somewhat more than its 3 percent to 4 percent long-term goal.

Hershey shares were down $1.85 at $52.25 on Wednesday morning on the New York Stock Exchange and traded as low as $51.80.

Hershey has been one of the more expensive U.S. food stocks on a price-earnings base.

As of the close Monday, Hershey shares traded at about 23 times 2006 earnings estimates, the fifth-highest multiple in the Dow Jones U.S. Food Producers index. The overall index has a 16.4 percent multiple.