Madrange, a major French producer of ham and charcuterie, has announced two acquisitions likely to been seen by competitors as signals for the widely expected corporate upheaval in the European pigmeat processing sector.

Limoges-based Madrange, a family controlled company with annual turnover of about £200m and 50,000 tonne production capacity, describes the purchases of French regional cooked meats companies Robert Antoine and Fontaine de Savoie as part of a £20m expansion programme to broaden its product range and help boost market share.

In financial terms Madrange is not among the giants of the EU industry. Turnover is about a third that of UK pigmeat processing sector leader Malton Foods, for instance. But focus on the premium ends of its target markets amplifies its industry influence and potential role in the coming consolidation.

Market instability in the UK is regarded as a key factor making rationalisation inevitable. Severe contraction of the the British pig industry, resulting in weekly slaughterings now 30% lower than two years ago, has squeezed the raw material supply and margins of Malton and other domestic pork processors while imports have surged.

Madrange is among the external suppliers trying to build up sales within the UK, although it is not yet well known in this country. Its main customers are Marks & Spencer, for pâté, and Safeway for sliced ham.

The volumes coming to the UK are tiny so far in comparison with the bacon and pork tonnages shipped to British customers by Danish and Dutch suppliers.

However, Madrange has demonstrated an ability to penetrate other EU markets outside France, and even within the UK it is regarded as a significant supplier by its two major multiple customers.

Plans disclosed in recent months for building a stronger UK market presence have tended to emphasise new product launches near the very high quality end of the consumer pack spectrum, with a premium range of organic hams and pates to be introduced shortly. Grilling ham is also under development.

Nevertheless, Madrange's impact in the UK may be felt directly within the industry rather than just as a foreign competitor in the supermarket chiller cabinets. Senior company executives are known to be interested in buying meat processing capacity here, and could find opportunities in the turmoil expected to follow disposal or restructuring of Malton by parent company Uniq (Unigate before its name change this week).