14 June 2002

KPMG pulls plug on pea plant

By James Garner

VINING pea growers supplying one of Britains biggest vegetable processing plants face selling their crop at knock-down prices if no deal is struck to save the factory.

The closure of Fisher Foods factory in Kings Lynn, Norfolk, happened on Monday this week with the loss of 320 jobs, after the receivers, KPMG, decided not to keep the factory open any longer. KPMG was called in last month after Fisher Foods parent company, Albert Fisher, went into receivership with debts reported to be in excess of £100m.

About 30,000t of vining peas were processed at the Kings Lynn site – about a fifth of the British crop. But with harvest just days away hopes of finding a suitable buyer for the factory are fading fast and with it the incomes of about 100 pea growers.

"It is far from ideal – if wed had a proper offer the factory would have stayed open, but nothing feasible has come forward. We dont take decisions like this lightly," said a KPMG spokeswoman.

If no deal saves the factory soon, then growers will have to decide whether to vine peas and try to sell them to other factories, although pulse growing groups fear that processors will not be able to cope with the extra supply.

The alternative is to harvest peas later and sell them as animal feed. Growers that do this stand to earn about a third of what they normally get. Top-grade premium "speedy peas", so-named because they are frozen minutes after harvest, are worth about £280/t, while those sold for feed trade at just £76/t.

Michael Attew, chairman of pea and bean group Aylsham Growers, one of the farmer-owned companies which supplied the Kings Lynn factory, says shutting it down severely hampers any chance of the site processing peas this harvest, particularly as all the staff have been laid off.

He reckons that Aylsham Growers stands to lose £0.5m in income, if members cant move fresh peas and with viners standing by for harvest some costs have already been incurred.

However, Tony Worth, managing director of Holbeach Marsh Co-operative, the factorys largest supplier, remains more upbeat.

"It is quite possible that providing an offer is on the table soon, some peas will still be processed at Kings Lynn. We havent ruled a deal out and we shant until we are mid-way through the pea harvest."

Fisher Foods had supply contracts with three retailers, Sainsbury, ASDA and Marks & Spencer. All three have moved swiftly to replace the shortfall. Sainsbury says this will mostly come from domestic processors and it is widely believed that ASDA has found an alternative UK supplier. &#42