Food and drink suppliers suffered their most sluggish growth in five years in 2009 and margins fell to the lowest point in a decade, according to an exclusive survey for The Grocer.

Analysts OC&C took the financial pulse of the top 150 UK companies and found margins hovered at about 6.5% while revenues struggled to a 7.2% lift.

Big brands continued to outperform, while the nimblest of the small own-label producers stole the market from weaker rivals, despite falling food inflation and subdued demand.

Danone, AG Barr, Noble Foods, Red Bull and Birds Eye all put in a storming performance, growing sales and profits to emerge as the top five companies with turnover above £200m.

Among the smaller ­players, Tilda, Walkers Shortbread, beef producer JW Galloway, Branston the potato producer and Cranswick Country Foods (Norfolk) shone.

Restructuring efforts also paid off for larger own-label producers in particular, with margins increasing overall from a low of 2.2% in 2008 to 3.7% in 2009. Cost-cutting carried through to the bottom line in the first quarter of 2010, with leading firms in the Top 150 managing a 1.2 point rise in y-o-y profits.

OC&C's Will Hayllar ­­cautioned against too much optimism. "Whether these benefits can be sustained is not certain with commodity costs rising and fiscal tightening hitting consumers," he said.