Blog: Chris Brook-CarterA sad day, but a bootiful legacy

Chris Brook-Carter | 26 November 2010

Bernard Matthews died last night, aged 80.

With some of the negative press the company attracted in the last few years, it's easy to forget what this entrepreneur of the food industry achieved. He began his business in the 1950s in a one-bed flat but in 2010 the company will farm 7m birds.

His legacy is not only a company that is still family run, and one from which he only stepped down as chairman in January this year, but a hand in modernising the food industry. His company said today that it was a trip to the US in the 1950s that prompted his vision for the freezer revolution which would transform the demand for oven-ready turkeys.

As his business developed, Matthews became a figurehead for the poultry industry, both at home and abroad, and in 1965 he was invited to the Soviet Union to advise Kruschev on modernising the Russian turkey industry. As chairman and president of the British Turkey Federation he presented a Christmas turkey to Harold Wilson and his wife on the steps of No. 10 Downing Street - something he later repeated for Margaret Thatcher (who insisted on paying him for it), and to John and Norma Major and the Blair family.

But he was very much a public as well as industry figure, and, his TV commercials to describe his turkeys, where he coined the famous ‘Bootiful', are among the most memorable of the 1980s.

The company has not escaped controversy or disaster. In 1953 almost everything he owned was destroyed in storms. More recently, the company has fallen foul of the healthy eating lobby after celebrity chef Jamie Oliver criticised turkey twizzlers, one of the company's key product lines.

It also was hit hard by the 2007 outbreak of bird flu, when it was at the centre of a scandal over the origin of its meat. It always denied it had broken rules and escaped any prosecution.

However, the company has made a strong recovery since those difficult years. Matthew's death has been front page news today in the UK and even made the BBC News, an extraordinary feat for a food manufacturing figure. The company's longevity, despite its setbacks, is a testament to his position on family tables around the country for so many years.


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