Bernard Matthews: Life is still bootiful

His Twizzlers may have fizzled out, but Britain's turkey baron has bounced back with a gong

After an annus horribilis, things are brightening this weekend for the turkey baron Bernard Matthews. The announcement that he has been awarded the Commander of the Royal Victorian Order (CVO) for work devoted to the Duke of Edinburgh award scheme will go some way to compensate for the loss of the dreaded Turkey Twizzlers.

In early 2005, Twizzlers were placed under an unwelcome spotlight by Jamie Oliver; pinpointed as the bogeymen of British school dinners. Production has since ceased and, when accounts were filed in December this year, Matthews' company showed operating profits to be down to £26.7m from £40.4m. One can only imagine the furious burning of his wife's Naked Chef book collection on the lawns of the Matthews' mansion, Great Witchingham Hall, and the expostulations at the sight of Oliver's cheeky, deified face grinning out of the displays in the windows of the Norwich branch of Waterstones. Ouch.

But the Twizzler episode is not the only one to dampen the progress of the company that has brought cheap turkey meat to the masses since the Seventies. In September this year two turkey catchers were secretly filmed at a Bernard Matthews unit in Haveringland playing baseball with live turkeys. A vet who viewed the tape described the abuse as hideous, the worst he had seen in his 25-year career. One man was seen hurling a turkey while the other used a pole made for rounding up turkeys as a bat to hit it with. A week later Matthews responded to the scandal by taking out a full-page advertisement in a newspaper, telling shoppers, "Our employees do not abuse turkeys". In fairness to him, staff were warned that cruelty to farm birds would result in dismissal.

Given the company's recent stall in sales, it appears that, for once, advertising did little to help the plight of Bernard Matthews. Dressed as a tweedy farmer and famously filleting the "eau" from "beautiful", he had earlier made his fortune from the success of his television commercials.

He started out very differently. The son of a struggling mechanic, Matthews was born in the Norfolk village of Brooke in 1930. His head for figures won him a scholarship at the City of Norwich school but he never took his exams and left at 16, heading for a career as an auctioneer. His meagre apprentice's wage packet had him searching for a way to make more money. "One day, at Acle market, there were 20 turkey eggs up for sale. I bought them for a shilling each. On the same day, in another part of the market, there was a small paraffin-oil incubator, which I bought for £1.10s."

Matthews' investment of £2.50 (in today's currency) brought him £9 after selling the 12 turkeys that thrived. "I thought, this is all right," he said.

When he was 25, he and his wife, Joyce, bought Great Witchingham Hall and its land for £3,000. Claims that the couple lived in two rooms while turkey chicks were reared in the other 34 are probably exaggerated but if the mind conjures a version of Orwell's Animal Farm where turkeys dominate, forget it. We know the end of this story. Matthews' success at intensively rearing vast numbers of turkeys has seen his company grow into one that in 2004 counted more than 7,000 employees worldwide. Products have ranged from Christmas birds to inventions for everyday such as "turkey Drummers", "Turkey Ham", "Mini Kievs" and the infamous Twizzlers.

The essence of Bernard Matthews' achievement has been to put his personality at the front of the business (reluctantly, he claims, because he says he dislikes seeing himself on television). The imagery says "jolly farmer" and "home cook" to shoppers, not "canny capitalist" - although that is just what he is. The mathematics prodigy is adept at turning money into more money; turkeys happen to be the catalyst in the alchemy.

Over the years, animal welfare organisations have expressed much discomfort - to say the least - about Matthews' methods of rearing turkeys. News of his latest award (he was previously made an OBE) has been greeted with dismay by some.

"It is sad that, in this day and age, when consumers have made it clear they have a strong grasp of welfare-friendly farming methods, someone who has been the doyen of the factory farming of turkeys has been awarded such an honour," said Joyce d'Silva of Compassion in World Farming.

Despite its requests, CIWF has not been allowed to visit Matthews' factories. Four years ago GMTV aired a video showing birds packed into overcrowded, darkened sheds, some of them lying injured and dying.

Matthews defends his company, insisting that the "intruders" caused the injuries seen in the footage by panicking the birds, although this has been disputed by the film-makers. The company has since worked to improve standards, but the poultry industry generally is still permitted to rear birds in a manner that leaves much to be desired.

Bred and fed to grow so fast that their immature legs often cannot support their weight, turkeys, like broiler hens, suffer much stress. There are reports that insufficient stunning at the time of slaughter leads to turkeys being scalded alive as they are prepared for plucking.

Matthews once insisted that indoor rearing was the only viable option because birds reared outdoors are more susceptible to infection but, with free-range organic poultry enjoying a boom, he has bought in. This December, he announced his company would take over the organic producer Cherryridge Poultry. "It was always our intention to move into the organic and free-range market," said the company's commercial director, Bart Dalla Mura.

There is a sound argument that cheap turkey meat comes at a high price; not just for the livestock but in terms of human health. Turkey meat is undoubtedly a source of nourishment, but this is counteracted by the findings of a government inquiry saying that 50 per cent of the sharp decrease in human immunity to disease is due to the routine use of antibiotics in intensive livestock production. Meals made with such meat may be cheap, but at what cost to the health service and, ultimately, to us, through our reduced ability to fight infection?

Bernard Matthews' immense wealth (a reported £300m) has allowed him to "put something back" with his acclaimed charity work, and it is for this and not his turkey empire that he receives his honour. He will join a list of other food moguls who have been recognised for good works at the same time as they have prospered through the retailing of inexpensive flesh (think Lord Sainsbury, Sir Gulam Noon, Sir Terry Leahy and Lord Haskins).

This weekend, as Bernard Matthews tucks into the curry he says makes the best use for turkey leftovers, he can comfort himself with another thing: at least Jamie didn't get another gong.

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