UK food and drink exports are up this year, with annual exports expected to exceed GBP13bn (US$19.4bn) for the "first time in history", according to new figures out today (17 November).

Figures from market development network Food from Britain (FFB) for the first six months of 2008 showed that the global popularity of UK food and drink has hit "record heights" with exports up 15.5% on last year.

The strength has been led by "phenomenal" growth in Central and Eastern Europe, with sales to Russia up 19.9%) and sales in Poland jumping 53%. Exports to Hungary soared by 58.2% in value terms, while UK food and drink sales to the Czech Republic climbed 45.5%.

The majority of the UK's established export markets are also experiencing double-digit growth, with The Netherlands - the UK's sixth largest export market - growing by almost 35%. Exports to Ireland, the UK's largest export market, experienced 12.4% growth, while exports to France, the UK's second-largest export market, increased by 18.6%.

"These latest figures are incredibly encouraging in the current climate," said Chris Brockman, head of research and consultancy at Food from Britain. "UK exports have gone through a sustained period of growth: two years ago it was incredibly significant that exports exceeded GBP10bn, as it was the first time since the BSE restrictions were put in place that the market had reached this milestone.

"However, since reaching GBP11.5bn in 2007, I predict that at the end of this year exports will have accelerated to more than GBP13bn, showing the largest ever increase by value in a 12-month period since records began."

After a poor performance last year, exports to the US have picked up again, recording a 2.9% growth in the first six months of 2008. FFB said that this is predicted to increase further as the dollar strengthens against the weakening pound.

Alcohol continues to be the UK's biggest export, up 17.5% year-on-year, and dairy exports were "predictably strong" with the category up 18.8%, with UK cheese exports growing by 23%. The UK's meat industry was buoyed by another successful six months of exporting: beef exports were up 32.3% while lamb experienced a 23.6% increase in sales.

Brockman added: "The UK economy is fragile at the moment, which although has a negative impact in many commercial areas, will have a beneficial effect on the food and drink export market. The UK has completely broken free from its island mentality and in relation to exports, is now starting to see the world as a global trading village."