2 Sisters factory at Flixton, near Bungay, ramps up production as festive chicken sales soar

Mark Caston on the factory floor at the 2 Sisters Food Group site in Flixton.

Mark Caston on the factory floor at the 2 Sisters Food Group site in Flixton. - Credit: sarah lucy brown

Deep in the north Suffolk countryside at Flixton, near Bungay, around 800 poultry processors are hard at work bringing some festive cheer to our tables. But it’s 1.1m chickens - not turkeys - that are flying out of this factory every week. SARAH CHAMBERS visited the 2 Sisters site to find out how they were coping with rising demand in the run-up to Christmas.

Last December, the only day the 2 Sisters chicken processing plant at Flixton, near Bungay, closed down was Christmas Day.

Unusually, the site, which is home to around 650 permanent staff and a further 150 agency workers and processes a whopping 1.1m birds a week, ended up opening on New Year’s Day – a day it is normally shut – to cope with a peak in demand.

It’s a sign of the rising popularity of festive chicken dishes – not just at Christmas, but around the entire festive season.

And, as for many of the farms and food processing sites across East Anglia, this is its busiest time of year.

The 2 Sisters primary chicken market has seen a 5.7% rise, and big birds – one of the Flixton factory’s key products – are flying off the shelves, along with a range of specialist and premium chicken dishes produced at the plant. The value of the market has grown less strongly, up 0.3%. The latest 12 and four week data show even more marked rises in volume of 8.4% and 15.2% respectively in a market worth around £1.7bn a year.

The top Flixton products include free range, organic, corn-fed and M&S Oakham, as well as a range of other retail whole bird and portions, and these are sourced mainly from East Anglian poultry farms which must comply exacting standards to meet the requirements of 2 Sisters’ top name customers.

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Planning for Christmas begins as far back as February, with the firm’s product developers working with retailers to create a wide range of specialist products which are then factory-tested to iron out the glitches.

Sometimes, as factory managers Mark Caston and Edgaras Liepinaitis explain, what works well in the kitchen laboratory requires adjustment to cope with the packing process. They cite recent examples of their problem-solving, such as using a heavier butter “star” and tucking parsley stalks under bacon wrapping to prevent them being blown off the top of the chicken as gas is blown on to the birds during the packaging stage.

As usual for December, there is Sunday working, and the factory is currently running seven days a week on two shifts a day, with a shutdown for deep cleaning between 11pm and 7am.

It’s a hive of activity, requiring great organisational skills and quick thinking to ensure each chicken reaches the right line and is processed in the correct way. With 50 or 60 different product lines – or more – to deal with and gaps required between different bird types, the process is heavily IT and automation-dependent, with weights measured automatically as the chicken carcases hang from hooks which deliver them to the processing lines.

Staff are regularly shifted from one task to another to ensure the “harder” jobs are evenly distributed and to avoid any physical stress.

Right now, the factory is at full capacity, which means that it won’t increase its numerical output of chickens, but the high demand for weightier birds in December involves much more work – thus the increase in shifts.

Even through the night, when processing stops, auditors regularly turn up without notice to satisfy the various supermarkets the site supplies that standards are being met: Flixton has achieved Model Ethical Factory status with Marks & Spencer and has been instrumental in working with the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) to create a factory standard in job rotation.

Previously Buxted Chickens, the Flixton poultry site has been in production for more than 40 years and is based in a disused World War II airfield. It was acquired by 2 Sisters in 2000, and in the last three years there have been investments in a new evisceration kit, an upgraded refrigeration system and a secondary scalder and allergen room have been installed.

Training is seen as key, and 7,000 hours have been devoted to it this year, with 40 staff taking part in its Lean and Leadership Academy, and 89% of staff completing their NVQ Level 2s.

Mark believes this has helped staff to perform better.

“It’s a fast environment, it’s quite a noisy environment. It’s easy to give some instruction and not to take the time to realise they haven’t quite understood,” he explained.

But leaders had been given help to improve their communication skills and many had grown in confidence, he explained.

He and Edgaras both started out on the factory floor and worked their way up. The majority of staff are foreign nationals, mainly Lithuanian, like Edgaras, but there are also around 130 British nationals employed there. Behind it all though, there is a great team spirit, say Mark and Edgaras. “It’s like one big family here,” said Edgaras. “Most people we know each other.” Much recruitment was through word of mouth, he added.

Christmas is a hectically busy time, but staff seem to like the variety and the extra attention, said Mark.

“Ok, it’s hard work, and quite a lot of hours over the Christmas period, but people enjoy it,” he said.