Saturday, February 11, 2006


British food correctness at work

Stormy waters lie ahead for Captain Birds Eye. The fish finger company is being forced to find a new berth.
Unilever, the parent company, is jumping ship, blaming frozen food's bad image for the decision to sell one of its most famous brands. Despite the good captain's "nutrition mission" on television commercials, and a 60 million pound overhall of the range last year, Birds Eye has struggled to reverse growing perceptions of frozen food as unhealthy and outdated. "It's modern and it's healthy," Trevor Gorin, a Unilever spokesman, said, "but it's hard to turn people's ideas around. The popularity of chilled food has been a big problem, too. The decision to sell was not an easy one, but we can't afford to be sentimental."

Birds Eye, founded by the American biologist Clarence Birdseye in 1922, is one of the iconic brands on supermarket shelves, selling more than 515 million fish fingers a year. More than 1.7 million people a day eat the company's peas. Its advertising figurehead, Captain Birds Eye, has become a household name since he appeared in 1967. He was even honoured with an obituary note in The Times during a temporary demise "after long exposure" in 1974. The white-bearded sailor made a comeback in 2002 after an attempt to replace him with a younger, stubble-clad impostor provoked protests from his fans.

Now the captain and the Birds Eye workforce, who include 900 staff at a frozen vegetable site in Lowestoft, Suffolk, and hundreds more at the fish plant in Hull, must wait until the company is sold before their future is decided. Unilever hopes to complete the sale by the end of the year. Birds Eye's Grimsby factory, where fish fingers had been made since their invention in 1955, closed a year ago with the loss of 620 jobs. Heinz and Findus have also put their frozen food divisions up for sale in recent months.

Reacting to yesterday's announcement, a spokesman for the Transport and General Workers' Union said: "Our members face an uncertain and unsettling future. We are very disappointed that Unilever has chosen to sell." Unilever said that it was also selling most of its European frozen food brand, Iglo, which with Birds Eye has an annual turnover of about 1.5 billion pounds. It will retain control of Iglo in Italy, where the market is performing better, as well as the ice-cream brand Walls.

Patrick Cescau, group chief executive, said that the decision to sell "has been a tough call. It has been a successful business for us over many years. However . . . in recent years growth has been harder to come by." Potential buyers for Birds Eye include the private equity group Capvest, which bought part of Findus this month.


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