Farmers suffer Birds Eye blow

FROZEN foods company Birds Eye has dealt a major blow to farmers across Suffolk and Norfolk by axing pea production at its plant in Lowestoft.

FROZEN foods company Birds Eye has dealt a major blow to farmers across Suffolk and Norfolk by axing pea production at its plant in Lowestoft.

The Anglian Pea Growers co-operative, whose 180 members grow around 30,000 tonnes for peas a year, worth an estimated �5million, was told yesterday that the company was ending its 64-year partnership with local growers with immediate effect.

Birds Eye, which blamed the move on the loss of a major contract in Italy, plans to concentrate pea production in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, where the crop wwill be processed at a factory in Hull, and also in a smaller operation in Perthshire.

The ending of the pea processing business at Lowestoft is not expected to have any impact on jobs at the Birds Eye factory in the town, which currently has about 700 employees including agency staff, although around half a dozen specialist agricultural advisers are likely to lose their jobs, the company indicated.

Farmer Richard Hirst, who leads the growers' co-operative, said the news, received in a brief telephone call, had come as “a bolt from the blue”.

“I was due to meet Birds Eye yesterday afternoon to carrying on negotiating the 2010 contract. There's been absolutely no indication this was likely to happen,” he said. “It is a bitter pill to swallow and what the long-term implications are, it is just too soon to tell.”

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Mr Hirst said the announcement was so unexpected that the co-operative's board members had been discussing whether to buy two new pea harvesters costing �320,000 each.

Although this season's contract had not been confirmed, many members had already received their seed deliveries and some were already planning to start drilling the next crop, he added.

Anne Murphy, managing director of Birds Eye, said the loss of a “major export contract” to Italy had left it with no choice but to take action to safeguard its frozen pea business.

“We were only notified of the decision in December,” she said. “It is important to us that we make a considered judgement on what is the right thing for the business.

“As soon as we finished that work we have got to the growers as fast as we possibly can. Obviously, the timing is a challenge in the context of the pea season but we have worked as fast as humanly possible.

“We've entered into a dialogue with the growers' this morning. We need to let that process runs its course,” she added.