(Recasts with milestone; adds NCA data, background)
By Marcy Nicholson
TORONTO, April 19 (Reuters) - North American cocoa grindings fell in the first quarter of 2018, marking the region's weakest start to the calendar year since 2011, data from the National Confectioners Association (NCA) showed on Thursday.
Cocoa grinders in the United States, Canada and Mexico reported processing 118,778 tonnes in the first three months of the year, down 1.14 percent from the same period a year earlier. This is, however, up 2.3 percent from the fourth quarter of 2017, NCA data show.
The first-quarter cocoa grind was at the low end of expectations that ranged widely from 1.5 percent below to 2 percent above the first quarter 2017.
Cocoa grinding reflects demand for chocolate's key ingredient, though higher processing in No. 1 grower Ivory Coast has reduced grinding percentages in consuming countries.
In contrast to the North American data, European grindings during the first three months of the year were reported up 5.5 percent from a year ago to 358,432 tonnes, the region's biggest first-quarter volume on records that date back to 1999.
Ivory Coast, the world's biggest cocoa producer, reported a first-quarter rise of 2 percent to 130,000 tonnes.
In the 2017/18 crop year (October/September), global cocoa grinding is forecast to rise 2 percent to 4.49 million tonnes. Meanwhile, 48 percent of the world's processing is forecast to take place in Africa and Asia, where cocoa is grown and processing capacity has risen, International Cocoa Organization data show.
The nine companies listed by the NCA as taking part in the North American survey: Barry Callebaut AG, Blommer Chocolate Co, Cargill Cocoa & Chocolate Co, ECOM, Ghirardelli Chocolate Co, Guittard Chocolate Co, Hershey Co, Mars Wrigley Confectionery, and Swiss food group Nestle SA.
In January, Italian chocolate group Ferrero bought Nestle's U.S. confectionery business.= (Reporting by Marcy Nicholson; Editing by Sandra Maler)