UK food and drink exports are expected to top £10bn for the first time, thanks to the stronger economies of central and eastern Europe and a growing appetite for British fare in Asia and the Middle East.

Export sales reached £2.3bn in the first quarter, according to a report by Food From Britain, 6% up on the same period a year ago. Historically, sales have tended to increase as the year goes on.

Amanda Kamin, communications manager at FFB, says: "More British companies are looking overseas and markets like Poland, Russia, China and Dubai have all performed great. If we continue at the same rate we'll pass the magical £10bn barrier." If sales do reach £10bn it will be the first time since 1996 that they have been so high. Between 1996 and 2001 exports declined by 15%, probably as a result of food scares.

Since then, however, exports have been climbing.

The growth, coming off a disappointing end to last year when sales per month dropped, has been led primarily by the UK's biggest export markets, Ireland and France. Ireland bought £447m of UK goods, up 12% on a year ago, and France bought £302m, up 13%.

But the interest in products exclusive to the UK is what is really exciting, according to Kamin. Soft drink sales, which include non-alcoholic drinks excluding tea, coffee and cocoa, were up 29% on last year at £52.7m. "We have flavours here like blackcurrant and elderflower that you don't get in the US, for instance. And in areas like Dubai and Saudi Arabia, cordials are a substitute for alcohol at events and occasions. Vimto is doing masses of business and can sell ten million bottles during Ramadan," she says.

Tea exports grew by 23% to £50.3m, with an interest in France evident from the growing popularity of tea rooms, and coffee exports were up 26% to £32.5m. British regional cheese continues to do well across the globe, up 16% to £57m. At the same time, sales of British cheeses in the UK have overtaken their foreign counterparts for the first time. Kamin adds: "It's particularly pleasing because people are buying things other than the usual cheddar and Stilton. I think the Wensleydale sector has benefited from the tie up with the Wallace and Gromit film."

Chocolate confectionery also had steady growth of 6% to £70.4m, buoyed by the Middle East. A­lthough volumes are small, growth in Dubai was 115%, Kuwait 146% and Saudi Arabia 150%.

The Irish Republic continues to be the easiest and biggest market for UK exporters. Soft drinks and milk & cream were the biggest contributors to the growth figures for Ireland, up 34% (£28m) and 32% (£27m) respectively. Bread, pastry and cakes also found increased favour, rising 9% to £44m. Cheese and breakfast cereals also performed strongly, climbing 7% and 15% respectively, to each generate sales of £21m.

Less encouraging is the meat sector in The Irish Republic, with the prepared meat (£20m), poultry (£9m) and pork (£8m) categories falling 11%, 22% and 20%. Fish fillets saw the largest fall-off among the top 20 UK exports to The Republic, down 58% to less than £8m. Worth noting, however, are wheat & meslin (up 46% to £10m) and potatoes (up 50% to £5m).

Globally, beef sales are bouncing back, however. Although they were low at £7.2m, this was up 26% on last year. And exports of sheep and goat meat were up 32% to £63m.

Inevitably, some sectors suffered - poultry exports fell 30% to £37m and wheat fell 6% to £294m - and some countries also lost their appetites for UK food and drink. Exports to Spain fell 24% to £134.3m, Finnish spend fell 73% to £9.9m and sales to smaller states such as Lithuania and Slovenia also fell significantly. However, volumes to these countries are tiny.

Kamin suggests that non-EU markets hold the most potential for UK manufacturers. A survey from FFB recently found that a third of Asian visitors to Britain rated the UK as having the best quality food when compared with Italy, France, Spain, Germany, the USA and Australia. Exports to sub-Saharan Africa grew 19% to £49.6m with South African interest up 77% to £23m. And 'other America' also holds promise, particularly Venezuela, up 26% to £18.4m and Brazil, up 175% to £9.9m.

Kamin's only concern at present is the tendency for manufacturers to move their production abroad. "Moving manufacturing abroad is a concern. We think it's important that suppliers remember that to compete, some value needs to be added here in the UK. We think this progress will continue though, and over the next ten years British food is really going to take off."