The current economic downturn represents one of the “biggest opportunities” in a generation for food companies that have the “courage and the capital” to act, according to new research.

The study by Plimsoll Publishing, which focused on the fresh produce sector, found that 110 companies are “ripe for the picking” based on a combined scoring system, incorporating overall financial strength, ownership, valuation and future potential.

The companies are all privately owned, yet are showing a “serious deterioration” in their financial performance, the researchers said.

David Pattison, senior analyst at Plimsoll said: “What we have indentified here is a group of ‘wounded animals’, many of these businesses have a long and distinguished history, yet their recent performance has deteriorated. By definition these are classic acquisitions.”

He added: “Anyone looking to grow their own company through acquisition should be looking for businesses that are currently undervalued yet, with help, can be turned around. However, this will not be easy. Many will need rapid and deep cost cutting to get them back on a firm financial footing. We could see as many as 3000 jobs go over the next 12 to 24 months as these companies shrink to ensure their survival.”

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Despite the prediction, Pattison said it sees a “massive” opportunity in the UK fresh produce market. “The current market conditions have presented an unprecedented set of opportunities to buy into a business that even a year ago would have been unaffordable. We know of at least 465 companies within the industry, who have the cash to spend and could aid these 110 ailing businesses and ensure their survival.”