Swiss food giant Nestle maintained its modest 2-4% growth target for underlying sales this year, slightly less than Anglo-Dutch rival Unilever.

Nestle said that growth in the first quarter was hit by weak consumer demand for packaged foods in North America and weaker prices in western Europe. 

Comparable or organic sales growth slowed as expected to 2.3% in the first quarter, from 3.9% the same time last year, when there was one more trading day and an earlier Easter, the company said. 

It also reaffirmed new chief executive Mark Schneider's forecast given in February of 2-4% organic sales growth, a stable operating profit margin and an increase in underlying earnings per share in constant currencies this year. 

Unilever today reported underlying first-quarter sales growth of 2.9%, helped by some higher prices, and said it aimed for 3-5%.

Volume growth at Nestle decelerated to 1.3%, from 3% a year ago, hit by soft demand in North America and China, while the overall increase in prices edged higher to 1% from 0.9%. 

Underlying sales by the company's confectionery business declined 2.9%, due to the later Easter holiday and weaker demand for chocolate, and its Yinlu drinks business dragged down its performance in China.

Nestle said pricing was still negative in western Europe, but the trend was improving thanks to increases in prices for the group's flagship Nescafe products. 

Nestle's overall sales increased to 21 billion Swiss francs ($21.1 billion) from 20.9 billion last time, just short of the average of analysts' forecasts of 21.2 billion francs given in a Reuters poll. 

Analysts said Nestle's quarterly growth was the lowest in more than a decade but they expected the situation to get better.