Turnover from food and drink processing in Northern Ireland rose by an estimated 4% to hit nearly £5.4bn in 2019, according to a report.
Food and drinks firms are accounting for a growing share of manufacturing employment here, making up 30% of jobs in the sector in 2019 – up from 29%.
At 36.8% of the total, it accounted for an even greater proportion of manufacturing sales than jobs in 2019.
It claimed 38.9% of manufacturing external sales, and 24.4% of export sales.
The figures are contained in the Northern Ireland Food and Drinks Processing Report, published by the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA).
While 2019 is the most recent year for which confirmed figures were available, the report said its provisional estimates for 2020 project a 1% increase in turnover to £5.41bn.
Employment numbers in food and drink firms also rose by 3% in 2019, to 24,945, with another 39 jobs added in 2020.
The value added by the sector to the economy rose by 7% to £998m.
Sales to Great Britain had risen by £30m, while sales across the border to the Republic were up £67m.
Countries outside the EU recorded a £180m increase in sales. However, sales within Northern Ireland had fallen by £53m, and sales to other countries in the EU were down £31m.
Overall, Great Britain was the biggest market for the sector, accounting for 48% of sales in 2019, although that was down from 49% in 2018.
Michael Bell, executive director of the Northern Ireland Food and Drink Association (NIFDA), said: “The figures once again emphasise the importance of food and drink to the Northern Ireland economy.
“It remains the largest manufacturing sector locally, employing tens of thousands of people and accounting for 30% of all manufacturing employment in Northern Ireland.
“The sector continues to add value to our economy, with the statistics showing that the value added by food and drink to the Northern Ireland economy increased by 7% to £998m in 2019.”
Mr Bell said the food and drink sector was still facing difficulties, and would need further government support to reach its full potential.
“While the sector remains strong, we should not underestimate the challenges the industry faces both now and in the near future,” he added. “Brexit, recruitment difficulties, new food strategies from government and of course recovery from the pandemic are all major issues the industry is grappling with.
“These challenges bring with them opportunities, and with the right support, Northern Ireland food and drink can continue to grow for the future.
"We need a value-adding food marketing body and financial support to allow further investment in innovation and automation.
“As the statistics demonstrate, food and drink remains one of Northern Ireland’s major economic assets.
"We have the potential to grow even further, create even more sustainable jobs and secure Northern Ireland’s economic recovery from Covid-19.
"With the right support, we will deliver.”