Which came first – the chicken or the egg production?

Bumblehole Foods

From a normal poultry farm in the 1960s, Bumble Hole Foods has developed into one of the UK’s biggest and most successful egg processing companies

It’s not often a company can say its staff always have a smashing day at work.

But at Bumble Hole Foods near Bromsgrove, the employees are breaking one million eggs a day.

That’s a lot of eggs, but this 59-year-old family business has a lot of mouths to feed.

Its customers are food manufacturing companies and ultimately major food retailers such as Marks and Spencer, Waitrose, Sainsbury’s and Greggs among many others.

Editor’s note: We visited Bumble Hole Foods in March, just before lockdown. 

Bumble Hole Foods is one of the UK’s biggest egg processing companies. Established in 1961 by farmer David Hewston as an offshoot to his poultry farming business, the company has invested millions of pounds in the business, most recently building a £5 million extension to accommodate ambitious growth and diversification plans.

Alongside that is an investment in its staff, including better pay, more training and supervision.

Andrew Hewston Bumblehole FoodsIts founder, David Hewston, sadly passed away in January, but his son Andrew, who joined the business in 1996 when it was turning over £5 million, has taken over as Owner and Commercial Director, supported by top industry egg-spert, Barry Jackson (that’s the egg pun out of the way – there had to be one).

Barry, who joined Bumble Hole as Managing Director in 2016 after working alongside the owners as a consultant, is an egg man through and through. Commissioned by David Hewston to write a growth strategy for the business, the directors were so impressed by his ideas that they invited him to join the company and implement it.

“I didn’t hesitate,” said Barry. “This business has so much heritage, but the egg processing industry was changing, and we needed to change with it.”

Bumble Hole Foods now employs 80 people and has an annual turnover of £20 million.

Andrew’s ambition for the business is clear. “We want to grow in the UK and be the first-choice egg processing company in Europe, because exporting is a major route to growth. We already export to the Middle East.

“But we are a family business and proud of our heritage. We will continue to invest to support our long-term ambitions.”

Hen husbandry standards are rising, and not before time

Bumble Hole Foods processing facilityThe poultry industry has had its fair share of criticism for poor husbandry standards in the past. But things have changed significantly, and not before time said Barry.

“Happy chickens produce better eggs,” he said.

“We work with wonderful farming families all over the UK. The quality of their eggs and the relationship we have with them is great. We also work together on genetics and feeding programmes.

“For instance, we have a lot of white eggs here, which work well in processing. They are good on boiling because the shell peels more easily and the egg constituency is better than a brown egg.

“We want consistency of product. The eggs should arrive with us with all the correct paperwork and if we look across the pallets, we should see a healthy bloom on the eggs.”

Bumble Hole Foods Egg ProductionBumble Hole now had three-year contracts in place with egg farmers across the UK, alongside a whole programme of sourcing. It also pays its farmers on 21 days.

“They can’t wait for their money, they’ve got feed to buy,” said Barry. “Farmers aren’t big corporations; they are typically small or medium-sized enterprises.”

Half the eggs processed at Bumble Hole are free range, the rest are from colony hens. These are cage housing systems which provide more space for hens to nest, scratch, perch and stretch their wings.

“The eggs are more expensive, but so they should be,” said Barry.

Bumble Hole Foods Barry JacksonBecause Bumble Hole Foods buys better quality eggs, the yield is better, which in turn benefits its food manufacturer customers. “For instance, quiche makers using our eggs will get a better lift in their products,” said Barry.

But the company isn’t complacent. “We might break a million eggs a day here. But every egg counts.”

And cleanliness counts as well. Every evening, after the million eggs have been processed, the factory is deep cleaned.

“Sciencing the egg”

The company began as a liquid whole egg supplier to the food processing industry, offering only pasteurised products. In the last few years, things have moved on considerably. Bumble Hole Foods is now building a portfolio of food products, such as Yorkshire pudding and quiche mixes, boiled eggs and egg mayonnaise, and plans to diversify even further into food manufacture.

The company has secured funding through Innovate UK to work with the University of Birmingham to better understand how to get the best out of every constituent of the egg.

“We science the egg to get the best out of it,” said Barry.

The company is also fitting out an innovation kitchen at its Bromsgrove headquarters where it will develop new food products, equipping it with mixing tanks and lines, and recruiting project engineers to enable customers to run trials at the factory.

“At the moment we mix our scrambled eggs, but we could also cook and freeze them. It’s about innovation – and about the benefits to our customers, said Barry.

“We look where we can add value, not just supplying a liquid whole egg product where there isn’t a lot of margin for us.”

Technology is helping the company too. “We are designing a system to give us barcode traceability on every tray of eggs, so we know where they came from and when,” added Barry.

This investment is bringing Bumble Hole Foods industry plaudits. In February the company won Ingredients Manufacturing Company of the Year at the annual Food Manufacture Excellence Awards.

Egg industry on the crest of a wave

The egg industry is riding the crest of the wave. More people are eating out during the day – a fact that’s good for the egg industry, because breakfast and brunch are predominantly egg-based.

And the move from meat to vegetarianism doesn’t worry Bumble Hole Foods, because they are customers too.

The potential price of Bregg-xit

As the UK embarks on Brexit trade talks, Barry warned of the dangers for UK egg processors such as Bumble Hole Foods.

“For products with high egg inclusion, such as Yorkshire puddings and quiches, it’s important to the manufacturer where the egg comes from because they have to list them as ingredients. But there are many products with very low egg inclusion – such as the glaze on a sausage roll. This wouldn’t feature on the ingredients list, so a manufacturer could use the cheapest and most intensively-farmed egg from anywhere in the world.”

EU welfare standards aim to eliminate the risk, dealing with salmonella before it infects the chicken. EU poultry farmers will either vaccinate or monitor to eliminate salmonella.

The USA takes a different philosophical approach to food production. It routinely uses steroids, growth hormones and antibiotics, and washing eggs to rid them of Salmonella, rather than protecting them from infection in the first place. In China, it’s worse. Hens are still being reared in tiny battery cages.

If processed egg products can be bought from anywhere in the world at half the price, and a manufacturer doesn’t have to list the ingredients because the amount in each product is so small, it will be tempting to go for the cheapest product.

One price of Brexit could be poorer poultry farm standards, and a lot less UK egg processing.