Campbell Soup Co.'s chief executive officer said yesterday that the Camden company took a "step back" in its most recent quarter, as tough competition and high ingredient costs caused disappointing results.

Investors turned cold on the stock, sending the shares down 6.26 percent, their worst one-day percentage loss since CEO Douglas R. Conant took over in January 2001. The shares closed at $33.70, off $2.25, on the New York Stock Exchange.

"Clearly we took a step back this year, but what I would tell you is that I am very optimistic," Conant said in a conference call with investors. "I think we have set the table for a good run here."

Campbell's adjusted earnings for the three months ended April 27, its third fiscal quarter, were $165 million, down 8 percent from $179 million in the comparable period a year earlier.

Adjusted net earnings per share were 43 cents in the current quarter compared with 45 cents a year earlier. Analyst estimates ranged from 41 to 48 cents a share.

Campbell's reported net income of $532 million included an after-tax gain of $467 million on the sale of Godiva Chocolatier Inc. in March and a $100 million after-tax charge on the sale of some salty-snacks businesses in Australia and other restructuring moves. Last year's reported net income of $217 million included $42 million in unusual gains.

Campbell's overall third-quarter sales were up 7 percent to $1.88 billion from $1.75 billion, with most of the gain coming from price increases on its products and currency translation.

The company said a bright spot in terms of revenue was Pepperidge Farm, which had strong sales increases in cookies, crackers, bread and frozen foods.

Soup, which remains Campbell's main profit engine, was weak, compared with strong gains a year earlier. This year, sales of condensed soups were flat; those of ready-to-serve soups fell 9 percent.

A February price increase on Chunky soup did not go well for Campbell. "A year ago on promotion you could buy four Chunky for $5," Conant said. "This year we had four Chunky for $6, reflecting higher input costs."

Many consumers balked.

Meanwhile General Mills Inc.'s Progresso soups gained 3 percentage points of market share for ready-to-serve soups in the three months ended Feb. 28. In March, General Mills touted strong performance of new "light" versions of some of its soups.

"They out-innovated us in the year," Conant said, without referring directly to General Mills.

Despite its troubles, Campbell said it still anticipated reaching its full-year target of 5 percent to 7 percent growth in earnings per share.

Campbell aided that effort with aggressive share repurchases. In the first nine months of its fiscal year, Campbell bought back 12.7 million shares for $435 million.

Contact staff writer Harold Brubaker at 215-854-4651 or hbrubaker@phillynews.com.