Ninety-nine NI firms have secured an all-time record of 264 awards, including 11 in the highest three-stars category, in the UK's most important taste competition organised annually by the UK Guild of Fine Food.Announcing the news, Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster said: "This is an outstanding set of results in what is regarded as the most significant and trend setting food and drink event in the British Isles, and many parts of Europe."It demonstrates the quality, outstanding taste and creativity of producers, mostly smaller businesses and artisan enterprises here. The spread of award winners to virtually every part of Northern Ireland recognises the strength of our food industry, and in particular the meat sector, where eleven of the 18 products listed received three-stars."Our companies have achieved more three-star golds this year than ever before, an overall total of 349 gold stars, and more than any other region of the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland."She added: "This highlights that Northern Ireland has become the UK's main food and drink production centre, a source of products that offer outstanding taste, wholesomeness and safety. I would like to congratulate all of those who have been recognised for their hard work and dedication."Hannan Meats in Moira, winner of the Supreme Champion Award in 2012, gained an unprecedented seven three gold stars, the highest ranking in the awards, for its beef and bacon that's dry-aged in the world's biggest Himalayan Salt Chamber.The Minister continued: "The Northern Ireland Executive recognises the potential of the food industry to strengthen rural communities in terms of wealth creation and greater employment opportunities and supports the Agri-Food Strategy Board's Going for Growth Action Plan."These Great Taste results, especially the new food ideas, are already attracting the attention of major UK retailers including Harrods - the sponsor of the Great Taste Awards, Selfridges and Fortnum and Mason."Invest Northern Ireland is already working closely with many of the award winners to help them to turn their achievements in the competition into business with key retailers in Britain and further afield."The 18 products to rate three-stars go forward to the final stage of the awards on 8 September in London, when the Supreme Champion Award will be announced along with other category winners in the Ambient Foods, Farmshop and Deli Signature Dish and the Northern Ireland Regional Fork.The Northern Ireland companies will also be in the running to be included in the Top 50 Foods.This year's awards included the first ever judging session to be held in Belfast.Overall, 405 judges including leading retail buyers, chefs and food writers were involved in the seven-week judging process that involved 10,000 individual products from the UK and Republic of Ireland.