UK exports of food and non-alcoholic drinks have hit record levels, boosted by strong performances in each category and a growing taste for UK products in Central European countries, according to a new study.

Research commissioned by the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) reveals that exports were worth GBP9.23bn (US$15.17bn) in 2008, up 20% in value terms on the year before.

When alcoholic beverages – notably Scotch Whisky – are included, exports hit GBP13.6bn.

Star performers included biscuits (up 15.3%); breakfast cereals (up 12.5%); cakes (up 12%); cheese (up 16.7%); chocolate (up 10.9%); sauces and condiments (up 21%); soft drinks (up 30.7%); and tea (up 14.3%). Together, exports of these added value products were worth almost GBP1.9bn.

“Amid all the economic gloom, this is a genuine ‘good news’ story,” said Melanie Leech , director general, FDF. “UK food and drink manufacturers have built a strong international reputation for quality and innovation over many years – and it’s clear that our sector continues to perform strongly on the export stage, despite challenging global circumstances.

“As the government this week looks to promote the importance of international trade through World Trade Week, these figures are a timely reminder of the important economic contribution made by the UK ’s biggest manufacturing sector.”

The overall performance was boosted by a “buoyant” red meat sector, recovering after the lifting of foot and mouth restrictions; strong exports of commodity cereals; and another strong year for fish and seafood companies who recorded overseas sales worth GBP1bn, despite tough market conditions, the FDF said.

Central Europe was one of the standout regions for exports, with growth fuelled by the demand for a wide range of UK food and drink products in the former Eastern Bloc countries. Exports to Hungary were up 74.3% to GBP40.2m; exports to Poland were up 53.6% to GBP116.4m; those to Latvia were up 51% to GBP8.6m; to Slovakia up 45.2% to GBP11.5m; and to Lithuania up 32.7% to GBP9.7m.

Report author, Chris Brockman, market research manager of Leatherhead Food International, said: “These figures represent yet another impressive performance from the UK food and drink exporting community. Exchange rates have clearly swung round in the favour of UK exporters, but the weakening of global markets means that competing on the international stage remains a challenge.”