English mustard is better that Dijon and American mustard. It may be one of England’s only world class foods, but man, is it world class. That sharp stuff makes me proud to live in England. I’m also proud to live in Norwich, the city that houses Colman’s, an English mustard brand so iconic that Nigella keeps a tube in her handbag.
Colman’s Mustard has been milled, mixed, and packaged in the same Norwich factory for 160 years. And now for the bad news. On January 4, owners Unilever announced that the historic factory will close in 2019. A smaller milling factory will be built in Norwich, but the bulk of production will shift to Burton-on-Trent, and dry sauces will be packaged in Germany.
Within the last two decades, several “best of British” food brands have moved their production abroad. HP Sauce features Big Ben on its bottles, yet it has been made in the Netherlands since 2007. Twinings moved production to Poland in 2011, but it still boasts of its 300-year-old flagship store on The Strand. And of course, we all remember the national outrage when Curly Wurly set sail for Poland.
Founder Jeremiah James Colman moved the young factory to Norwich from a neighbouring village in 1858. Colman was a philanthropist, liberal, advocate of religious freedom, and general nuisance to the ruling class. As such, the Colman family were said to care deeply about their employees, building them not just housing, but also a school and healthcare facilities.
I clock the Coleman’s factory almost as soon as I reach Trowse, a village just south of Norwich's city centre. The iconic yellow and red logo is framed by a rustic stone wall—an alternate “Welcome to Trowse” sign.
The village might have a vegetarian restaurant and its own dry ski slope, but I soon discover that it remains a proper olde English affair at heart. There’s a poky village shop and a worn medieval church, and the place is silent in the middle of the day—save for honking geese and the occasional car. The church’s pulpit is surrounded by wooden figures of King David and angels, which were donated by the Colman family.
Just down the road from the church is a street of terraced houses, sandwiched between dainty front gardens and open back plots. These were built by Colman back in the late 1800s for his lower level workers. I speak to Neil Didsbury, who lives in one of them today.
“I think [Colman] was a nice family guy,” he tells me. “I’m not sure what he’d think of what's happened in this past week.”
The wider city of Norwich also has an emotional connection to the mustard factory. Until recently, the city had a Colman’s Mustard museum. A local coffee bar, car engineers, and an ex-local TV station all feature “mustard” in their names.
“It is quite sad as it is a large part of Norwich’s history, and in part, what the city is famous for,” local bookseller Elspeth Dutton tells me. “Also, there is the job factor. Any loss of jobs to the area is a worry.”
Didsbury's expresses a similar sentiment: “We live in this world now where so many former British companies are now made by stuff in Germany or other places.”
The new, smaller Colman’s site will create 25 jobs and 40 workers will relocate to Burton. This leaves 48 people unemployed. Similar job losses caused public concern in 2007, when Cadbury’s, a brand also known for its long history of employee welfare, announced that it was cutting 700 jobs by outsourcing production to Poland. American conglomerate Kraft pledged to keep these jobs, only to change their mind after acquiring Cadbury’s in 2010.
The common denominator? Big business. Anglo-Dutch firm Unilever bought Colman’s in 1995. Cadbury’s merged with Schweppes in 1969, forming a transnational giant. Kraft is one of the world’s largest food and drink companies. Heinz bought HP Sauce in 2005, and cut 125 British jobs by outsourcing to Holland just a year later. And although they’re a bit “meh,” I have to include Blue Riband bars here, too. The chocolate wafer snack has been produced in Britain for 81 years but last April, owners Nestle announced that they were slashing 300 jobs and switching production to Poland.
It probably comes as no surprise that transnational conglomerates are OK with sacrificing Britain’s jobs, manufacturing industry, and local heritage. But are the British public? According to Kiti Soininen, UK director of food and drink research at Mintel, 47 percent of UK consumers say that they usually check labels to see which country their groceries come from. Mintel’s research also found that just two in five consumers are willing to pay more for British food.
Soininen adds: “The current squeeze on household budgets thus stands to dilute the loyalty to British producers further, where buying their products would entail a price premium.”
Saying that, why would you check to see where your food was manufactured, when it’s labelled “Colman’s of Norwich” or brandishes an image of Big Ben?
Some historically British brands owned by foreign conglomerates have kept their UK production sites. Branston Pickle is produced in Bury St. Edmunds, despite being bought by Japanese company Mizkan in 2012. Likewise, Lea & Perrins sauce is now owned by Heinz, but its Worcester site has stayed intact since 1837. It’s anyone’s guess as to whether Heinz will keep producing in the UK, or move Lea & Perrins like they did HP Sauce. Branston Pickle’s website proudly states that its factory has remained in Suffolk since the takeover—350 jobs are safe for the time being.
The Norwich Colman’s plant closure reveals a lot about the wider state of Britain’s food manufacturing industry, but public outrage can only do so much to impact the decisions made by transnational companies. As Soininen explains, “The decision on where to undertake production will, for any business, be primarily a financial one.”