UK fresh prepared foods maker Geest has reported a 1% rise in full-year profits and said 2003 had been a challenging year.

The company posted pre-tax profit of £41.4m (US$75.5m) for the year to 3 January, narrowly missing analysts' forecasts of £41.7m-42.5m, reported Reuters.

Geest's sales rose 12% to £868m from £762m in the previous year. Sales of UK fresh prepared foods rose 6%. The company said it launched more than 800 new products in 2003.

Geest's chairman, Sir John Banham, said the sales growth had been achieved despite 2003 being a challenging year for food manufacturers.

"We remain focused on our areas of fresh prepared foods and produce. These areas continue to show rates of growth which outstrip that of the overall food sector. Given the progressively higher profile of the healthy-eating debate, we are increasingly confident of the strategic positioning of our businesses," Banham said.

"Internally, we have increased our efforts to take cost out of our business and have worked with our customers and suppliers to improve supply chain efficiency. There is much more we will achieve in these areas in 2004. Scale, valuable market positions, high quality products, well-invested facilities and new routes to market will all contribute to our performance, giving us confidence in our ability to achieve profitable growth for our shareholders," he added.