Uncertainty for Birds Eye workers

NEARLY 900 workers at Lowestoft's giant Birds Eye factory are facing an uncertain future amid reports that its owner Unilever has clinched a deal to sell the business.

NEARLY 900 workers at Lowestoft's giant Birds Eye factory are facing an uncertain future amid reports that its owner Unilever has clinched a deal to sell the business.

Last September Unilever confirmed it was reviewing the future of its European frozen foods business including Birds Eye, which employs 870 people at its factory complex in North Denes, after weeks of speculation.

Now industry analysts believe the multinational company is poised to announce the sale of the business as early tomorrow, when it publishes its annual results.

A number of companies are likely to be interested in the business, which experts believe could be sold for as much as £1billion. These include venture capitalists Blackstone and Birds Eye's frozen food rival, Grimsby-based Young's Bluecrest.

Although none of the potential buyers has yet to state their plans in public, concerns have been raised about the long-term future of the factory. Less than two years ago Unilever announced the closure of the Birds Eye factory in Grimsby with the loss of 600 jobs, leaving the business with its sites in Lowestoft and Hull.

Birds Eye's Lowestoft factory is one of the town's biggest employers and was last year voted the UK's top manufacturing site by the Manufacturer. The site produces a vast range of products under the Birds Eye brand, from peas, potatoes and other vegetables to frozen chicken and red meat products.

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The factory is an important market for many farmers, especially the region's pea growers. Peas have to be delivered from the region's fields to the Lowestoft factory and frozen within 150 minutes or they are rejected.

UK, generated sales of £1.35bn last year, but the company said its sales recently had been disappointing.

The company has been working for the past few years to revive sales of Birds Eye products which, like other frozen foods, have been losing out to chilled meals.

In 2004 the company scrapped the Birds Eye gull logo which was introduced more than 60 years ago in a move to give the brand a more modern look, with the company launching a major advertising campaign promoting the healthy nature of the food under the slogan “We don't mess with your food”.

The news of the potential sale could also have an impact on the annual Lowestoft Air Festival. Unilever is a major sponsor of the two-day show, which regularly attracts 350,000 people to the seaside town.