Premier Foods turned up the heat on rival Heinz yesterday in its battle for the UK's £250 million baked bean market.

Premier, which posted annual operating profits of £90.2 million - a gain of 12 per cent - said it captured an 11 per cent share of the sector after spending £3.5 million marketing Branston Beans since their October launch.

Chief executive Robert Schofield said it claimed seven per cent of the market within three months and by the end of February it held an 11.2 per cent share.

Heinz said its position remained unchanged at 68 per cent and suggested Premier was eating into its own-label supermarket brands.

Premier makes beans for HP under a licence which ends this month and was worth £20 million annually.

Mr Schofield said launching Branston Beans had been done "out of necessity" but had gone on to be a hit.

A spokesman for Heinz, making beans for 103 years, was unconcerned.

"Branston certainly hasn't dented Heinz's position as the nation's favourite baked bean," he said.

Premier, which also makes Bird's Custard and Sarson's Vinegar, saw total sales rise six per cent to £789.7 million despite a string of setbacks, including a fire at its Bury St Edmunds pickle factory.

A hike in energy bills and packaging tin-plate hit profits - but had been offset by price rises, the firm said. Its fresh produce range was the biggest loser with sales slipping 29.3 per cent to £106.3 million and profits slumping 91.2 per cent to £500,000 as its potato business - to retailers and wholesalers - suffered a price drop and loss of contracts.

Premier's biggest move of 2005 saw it tap the growing hunger of Britons for healthy meals, swallowing two meat-free product makers.

In November, Premier paid £27 million for Cauldron Foods, which supplies super-markets with vegetarian sausages, falafel, tofu and other products from its Portishead base, near Bristol.

That followed a landmark £172 million acquisition in June of the maker of Quorn, which took Premier into the healthy eating market.

Its combined meat-free business saw sales of £49.6 million - bolstered by television advertising. It said an extra 420,000 households were now eating Quorn.

The firm extended the Loyd Grossman cooking sauce range - the third largest in the UK - which grew 22 per cent, and Ambrosia which rose 12 per cent. Mr Schofield said because most of the company's products were "healthy foods" it had not been hit by concern over nutrition and diet. ..SUPL: