We investigate determinants of quality upgrades in EU agri‐food exports using panel data models for the period 2000–2011. By employing highly disaggregated data we show that the unit value of exports is positively correlated to level of economic development and size of population. Our results highlight the negative impacts of comparative advantage and trade costs on upgrades in export quality. Our analysis partly confirms the role of income distribution in quality specialisation, that greater income inequality increases specialisation in quality upgrades. Findings are robust when applied to alternative subsamples, including vertically specialised and final agri‐food products.