* Sales fall 2.4 pct to $3.17 billion, missing estimates
* Raises fiscal 2010 EPS forecast
* Shares down 0.4 pct (Adds conference call, analyst comments, background)
NEW YORK, Dec 21 - ConAgra Foods Inc posted higher-than-expected quarterly profit on lower commodity costs and strength in its consumer foods business, but warned that costs could rise modestly in the coming months.
"We expect low single-digit inflation for the fiscal year in consumer foods, excluding the pass-through items. So that means a bit of headwind but nothing like we experienced last fiscal year or the year before," Chief Executive Gary Rodkin said.
The maker of Chef Boy-Ar-Dee pasta and Banquet frozen dinners raised its full-year profit forecast for the second time in six months, citing increased marketing and consumers eating at home more often in the tough economy.
Its consumer segment has also benefited from ConAgra's efforts to overhaul product lines and better price products to cover commodity costs yet still attract shoppers.
The company said its "Obviously Delicious and Secretly Nutritious" marketing campaign, highlighting that each serving of Chef Boy-Ar-Dee beef ravioli contains a full serving of vegetables, particularly resonated with customers.
Net profit increased to $239.7 million, or 54 cents a share, in the second quarter ended Nov. 29, from $168.1 million, or 37 cents a share, a year earlier.
Excluding one-time items, profit was 52 cents a share, beating the analysts' average forecast of 47 cents, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.
Profit at its consumer foods unit rose 31.4 percent, while volumes grew 2 percent.
Total sales fell 2.4 percent to $3.17 billion, shy of Wall Street expectations for $3.33 billion.
BRAND STRENGTH QUESTIONED
ConAgra, which spent 25 percent more on marketing in the quarter than a year earlier, said its three big frozen food brands -- Banquet, Healthy Choice and Marie Callender's -- took market share in the period.
Some analysts have cautioned that the company has bought some of its volume gains with promotions and that its brands are especially vulnerable to private-label competition.
Edward Jones analyst Jack Russo said ConAgra's sales progress was a little bit better than its peers, but said there were concerns surrounding the strength of its brands.
"A lot of their brands within their categories are not leading brands ... but second or third tier," Russo said. "Perhaps there is some concern that the strength of those types of brands ... is not going to last as we head into 2010."
ConAgra has sold off units like a commodity trading business to focus more on branded consumer foods, but it said it was open to making acquisitions that made strategic sense.
It said full-year earnings would approach $1.73 a share excluding one-time items. In September it raised that forecast to about $1.70 a share.