Grimsby feels the chill as Birds Eye site shuts

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The Independent Online

Unilever is shutting its Birds Eye factory in Grimsby with the loss of 600 jobs as part of an attempt by the consumer goods giant to revive its struggling frozen food arm.

The move comes just months after Unilever unveiled a £60m initiative aimed at boosting declining sales of frozen food across Europe. Out went the Birds Eye seagull logo, and in came a red, teardrop-shaped motif, which it hoped would remind consumers that even frozen peas and chicken goujons started life outside the freezer.

The Anglo-Dutch group behind freezer favourites such as McCain's, Bernard Matthews and Findus, took the decision to shut down the Lincolnshire plant after failing to find a buyer.

It plans to contract out production of the Birds Eye ready-meals that Grimsby produced for third-party suppliers. It hopes the move will save it money and improve the rate at which it is able to invent new dishes, without which it will never halt the country's waning appetite for frozen foods.

James Hill, who heads Unilever's frozen food and ice cream division, said: "There is significant overcapacity in the meals industry and to be competitive you need to have large-scale, highly flexible facilities. Even if we had made large internal investment in the Grimsby plant we simply couldn't match the scale and innovation capabilities already available from third parties."

The group has two other Birds Eye factories, in Hull and Lowestoft, neither of which are affected by yesterday's announcement. The Grimsby factory, which has made Birds Eye meals since 1946, will shut in the first quarter of next year.

Some 450 of the 600 jobs were part time, but the closure will hit 7 per cent of Grimsby's 91,000 population. The decline of the North Sea fishing industry has forced the historical fishing port to reinvent itself as a food processing centre. Unilever stopped making fish fingers in Grimsby five years ago.

Unilever launched a £25m advertising campaign in July aimed at giving the battered fish finger a healthier image. Its new ranges include fish and vegetables for steaming as well as fishmeals made from hoki, a sustainable alternative to cod. Cap'n Birds Eye, its infamous old sea dog of a figurehead, was brought out of retirement two years ago to promote Birds Eye's meals, after a younger model failed to do the trick.