UK snack manufacturer United Biscuits has reported 2002 sales of £1.3bn (US$2.1bn), an increase of 3.1% at a constant exchange rate.

Sales of branded goods rose 3.8% to £1.1bn, and now account for 86% of total sales. The company owns snack brands including McVitie's Hula Hoops, KP nuts and Penguin biscuits.

The company said that on a two-year view, the combination of sales growth with a cost reduction programme increased the group's operating margin to over 14% last year, compared to 11.6% in 2000.

A three-year standstill agreement between United Biscuit's owners - three private equity investors and US food giant Kraft Foods - comes to an end in March, enabling the four owners to sell up if they so wish, with Kraft being given the first refusal if a trade sale is opted for, Reuters reported quoting banking sources.

The company denied that it was planning to sell up. "It's too early on in our growth strategy to talk about an exit. Our shareholders are supportive, and our plan is to continue to grow the business," chairman and chief executive Malcolm Ritchie was quoted as saying by Reuters.