Northern Ireland-based Moy Park, one of Europe's largest chicken producers, has suspended the processing of live birds at its production unit in Ballymena, Co Antrim, amid fears it may be planning to scale back operations altogether.
The company, which is owned by US food giant Pilgrim’s Pride, is the North’s largest private sector employer with about 6,000 staff across its network of operations there.
It is understood to be struggling with rising input prices related to the recent surge in energy costs and to have had difficulties hiring staff under new UK immigration rules post-Brexit.
In response to “customer growth and labour market challenges”, the company said it was proposing to move staff from the live bird processing line in Ballymena to other processing lines.
“No jobs will be impacted by these changes. However we are planning to temporarily pause live bird processing at Ballymena as we focus on seasonal and retail products,” a spokesman said.
“The live processing line will restart again in September. We will be working closely with our farming partners throughout the process to manage this temporary reduction in poultry requirement,” he added.
Moy Park is one of Europe’s biggest poultry processors, handling more than 5.7 million birds every week. It generated sales of £1.6 billion (€1.9bn) in 2019.
This is the second time in three years the company has suspended production at the Ballymena plant.
The Ulster Farmers' Union expressed "deep concern" at the news. UFU deputy president William Irvine said: "Our members are extremely disappointed and worried about Moy Park pulling back on production here.
“It is the second time this has happened in less than three years and will create ongoing income pressures. Poultry producers have been hit hard in recent times and they’ve been exhausting every avenue to sustain their family farm businesses.
“Moy Park has said that they aim to get the slaughtering of live birds in the Ballymena site going again in September when a major contract with Sainsbury’s will begin, but in the meantime we will be liaising closely with Moy Park to ensure this is managed with minimal impact,” he said.
“It’s important that consumers understand that the increasing input costs to produce food is going to affect the cost of food for them. Neither farmers nor processors can produce food, meeting extra production costs, without receiving a fair return from the marketplace. Therefore, it’s going to have a rippling affect down the food chain.”
Brazilian meat giant JBS sold Moy Park to Colorado-based food group Pilgrim’s Pride in 2017 in a deal which valued the company at €1.1 billion.