Beef, lamb and dairy sales help Northern Ireland's food industry reach profits of £4.15bn
Sales have reached £4bn in the food and drinks processing sector, according to an official digest on Northern Ireland's powerhouse industry.
Provisional statistics in a Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (Dard) report show that sales grew by 4.2% in 2012 to reach £4.15bn.
However, that growth was slower than the year before, when confirmed figures show a growth of 6.4% to £3.99bn.
Just over a quarter of all manufacturing sales in 2011 were made in food and drink – and beef, mutton/lamb and dairy were the three most bounteous sub-sectors, claiming around half of turnover.
Agriculture Minister Michelle O'Neill said: "The figures demonstrate the important role played by our local food and drinks processing sector and its contribution to the local manufacturing sector and wider regional economy."
The sector, which includes powerhouse companies like poultry processor Moy Park, part of Brazilian giant Marfrig, and Dale Farm, part of United Dairy Farmers, contributed around 3.6% to Northern Ireland's gross value added in 2011 and 16% of value added in the manufacturing sector. It also employs nearly 20,000 people.
Great Britain was the main market for sales in the sector, accounting for 40% of sales in 2010 and 2011, while the home market accounts for the smaller slice of 31%.
The Republic of Ireland was the biggest export market – although sales fell from £654.1m, or 17.5% of the market, in 2010 to £650.9m, or 16.3%, in 2011.
Sales of poultry meat, drink and eggs to the Republic were all down though sales of milk and milk products were up from £115.2m in 2010 to £136.7m in 2011.
Sales to other EU countries were up by around £80m to £404.2m in 2011, with almost £50m of the increase due to growth in dairy.
Ulster Bank chief economist Richard Ramsey said this year would bring more growth for the sector: "Going forward in 2013, exchange rates should be supportive of further growth in both the Republic of Ireland and Great Britain markets.
"The strong euro we are seeing at the moment makes Northern Ireland food products price-competitive, not just in the Republic but in Great Britain."
That was because the weakness of sterling meant it made more sense for Britain to buy from food producers in Northern Ireland than the Republic.
Michael Bell, executive director of the Northern Ireland Food and Drink Association (NIFDA), said the figures were "excellent".
He added: "NIFDA strongly welcomes these excellent performance figures particularly given the challenging economic times faced by the industry in recent years. In fact the industry has managed to grow by around one third since 2008, outperforming many other sectors."
The percentage sales grew in 2012
The amount the sector grew in 2011
Of profits in 2010-11 came from Great Britain