Posted on Sunday 13 October 2013 by Ulster Business

Karro Foods

The company behind one of Northern Ireland's best known food brands – Cookstown sausages – is set to increase production at its mid-Ulster site, creating hundreds of new jobs.

Seamus Carr, Managing Director of the brand's owner Karro Food Group, said plans were under way to expand its facility in Co. Tyrone to increase the number of pigs slaughtered from just over 22,000 to 30,000.

The pork processor's ramp up in production is expected to take place over the next three years and could see its workforce rise from just over 700 people to around 1,000, said Mr Carr.

"We have major ambitions to grow the Cookstown facility. To ramp it up to 30,000 pigs we will have to invest £10m and that project is under way at the moment," he said.

"We are hopeful that recent initiatives through the Agri-Food Board and funding from government to increase primary supply will be a route to accelerate those developments," he added.

"The growth will be about the ability to access funding and planning to put that primary infrastructure into Northern Ireland."

As head of the Karro management team, working with investors Endless LLP, Carr led a successful management buy-out of Dutch company Vion Foods' UK pork division earlier this year, forming Karro Food Group. The group, headquartered in Yorkshire, encompasses nine sites which incorporates pig farms, pig slaughter and processing.

As well as the famous Cookstown sausages, the group processes fresh pork, bacon and gammon, cooked meats and frozen burgers and sausages in the retail, foodservice and food manufacturing sectors. It employs over 3,000 employees and has a turnover in excess of £550m.

The company supplies all of Tesco and Asda's pork products in Northern Ireland as well as Henderson Group and Dunnes in the Republic of Ireland. It also runs the McGhee's butcher concession in Asda, employing 90 people.

Carr, who first worked at Cookstown in the mid-1990s under one of the firm's previous owners, says the plant is at the centre of its future growth plans in the UK, Ireland and further afield.

"Cookstown is the core of Karro. It is not regional, it is very important," he said.

"Cookstown when I first went there in the mid-1990s was killing 6,000 pigs. Today Cookstown is killing 22,000 pigs a week, over half the group's throughput. It is a very substantial business which will have turnover of £175m and employs over 700 people, so it is a very big business in Northern Ireland and a major employer in that Cookstown and Tyrone area," he added.

"Our major focus out of Cookstown now is export driven. The facility in Cookstown is the only facility is Northern Ireland that is US Department of Agriculture approved. The plant is also approved to export to China by the NI Department of Agriculture and we're putting a lot of effort into getting approval from the Chinese authorities".

In the US the best-selling products are, perhaps unsurprisingly, ribs, but Karro is widening its portfolio there. Exports to China will involve pigs heads and trotters, but there too Carr is expecting a wide range of orders.

"China would have historically been offal type products that we don't tend to consume here like heads and bones, however, because of the greater wealth and urbanisation, they are going up the protein chain and a wider range of products will be bought by these countries," he said.

Investment in the Cookstown plant has already begun in preparation for the expansion, with a further £3m invested in a state-of-the-art stunning facility believed to be more humane than other methods. Leading edge technology developed by Vion backed by Invest NI will also soon be deployed in Cookstown.

The company, like all other meat producers, is putting a renewed focus on ensuring the security of its supply chain in the wake of the "horse-gate" scandal. While he says Karro's procedures are "very robust" Carr also says it takes no chances, noting that the company got caught up in the 2008 dioxin issue because of "someone in the supply chain doing something they shouldn't be doing".

"It is a big challenge. From a Karro perspective we see it as an advantage because in Cookstown, we only handle our own kill. It is bought from known farmers into the plant – it is a closed supply chain so we can give our customers a greater surety on that," he said.

"In light of horsegate everyone has had to re-evaluate their supply chains. Our procedures would have been very robust anyway but where you buy in materials external to your own farmer suppliers as we do in Malta and Holland, you are always open to risks, so you have to keep a constant focus on it."

The company has its own pig farms in Scotland but brings in around 12,000 a week from trusted pig farmers in Northern Ireland and 10,000 a week from the South. Carr said it is planning to increase the number of pigs reared on its own farms from just below 10% to 20% in the next few years.

With over 20 years experience in the Agri-Food industry working in senior roles for the likes of Unipork and Glanbia, Carr says he is glad to see the renewed focus on developing the sector as a major driver of employment and the economy.

He believes there are strong career opportunities for young people in the sector with numerous paths for development.

"If you're going to take on these export markets you have to make sure you meet very stringent quality standards, packing standards, so the concept of an unskilled operative is alien to me. They all have to be skilled at the job they do," he said.

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