(Aug. 1, PACKER WEB EXCLUSIVE) Chiquita Brands International Inc. recorded its best quarter in three years during the second quarter and hopes for continued growth with new agreements that placed the Cincinnati-based company’s fruit products in Burger King, Starbucks and McDonald’s restaurants.

Chairman and chief executive officer Fernando Aguirre said during a July 31 conference call that Chiquita is Burger King’s “major supplier” for the Fresh Apple Fries product that the Miami-based hamburger chain rolled out nationwide July 7.

Chiquita, he said, also is supplying bananas for the Vivanno drinks Starbucks introduced in July. The coffee house’s banana-chocolate and orange-mango-banana blended drinks both include whole bananas.

Meanwhile, the produce company also has introduced Chiquita-branded fruit cups to McDonald’s locations in The Netherlands and rolled out its Just Fruit in a Bottle drinks to six European countries.

“Although not every new product idea will be a homerun, we’re confident that these types of innovations will provide new and profitable growth opportunities,” Aguirre said.

Chiquita reported net sales of nearly $1 billion — up 6% from the year-ago period. Income was $59 million, or $1.31 per share. That compared to earnings of $5 million, or 12 cents a share, a year ago.

Aguirre said it was the company’s fourth consecutive quarter of year-over-year earnings growth.

Chiquita said net sales in its banana business increased 17% to $563 million. Operating income increased to $89 million, compared to $43 million a year ago. However, the company said the increase was offset by lower volumes and $48 million in increased costs.

In its salads and healthy snacks segment, Chiquita said net sales increased 4% to $350 million. However, the company suffered a $6 million loss — compared to income of $10 million in the second quarter of 2007. The setback was due in part to $10 million in increased industry costs.

“Our North American salad operations, both at retail and foodservice, are underperforming,” Aguirre said.

Aguirre said Chiquita has made improving profitability in its packaged salad business a top priority and has implemented a four-pronged initiative as a result. He said the company is altering its contracts to “more quickly reflect market changes” related to fuel. He said Salinas, Calif.-based subsidiary Fresh Express is working to eliminate inefficiencies in its integration with Harrisburg, Pa.-based Verdelli Farms Inc., which it purchased in October 2007.

Aguirre said the company also is working to improve merchandising and renegotiating contracts.

Chief financial officer and senior vice president Jeffrey Zalla said Chiquita is increasing its investment in “owned processing” of its healthy snacks products — such as sliced apples — to keep up with customer demand and “eliminate co-manufacturing that is impacting margin.”

Chiquita reported it lost $2 million in “excess sourcing costs” related to the Food and Drug Administration’s nationwide consumer advisory for roma and red, round tomatoes in June.

Chiquita said its previously announced sale of German distributor Atlanta Ag to Belgium-based Univeg Group is expected to close in the third quarter. Chiquita said it will use proceeds from the $85 million sale to pay down its $874 million debt.

Chiquita’s stock was up $1.66 to $17.01 Aug. 1 on the New York Stock Exchange.