- The Washington Times - Friday, March 16, 2007

LONDON (AP) — More than 100 years of British tradition came to an end yesterday as the final bottle of HP brown sauce — a popular alternative to ketchup — rolled off a production line at a factory in central England.

HP’s U.S. owner, H.J. Heinz, stuck by plans to switch production of the sauce to the Netherlands to save money, despite a high-profile campaign to keep it in Britain that saw protests outside the U.S. Embassy and lawmakers brandishing bottles of the condiment in the House of Commons.

A staple that is smothered over everything from fish and chips to the traditional English fry-up breakfast of sausages, bacon, baked beans and eggs, its advertising slogan proudly proclaims it is “The Official Sauce of Great Britain.”

Its distinctive tall bottle carries a picture of the Houses of Parliament on a blue and red label — an image that some protesters say is no longer appropriate.

The decision to close the Aston, Birmingham, plant in favor of a new factory in Elst, in the Netherlands, will also cost 120 jobs.

“The plant has been a landmark for 108 years. You could always smell it from miles away,” said Joe Clarke, a spokesman for the Transport and General Workers’ Union.

“The implications for the workers are terrible,” Mr. Clarke added. “Most of them were looking to spend the rest of their working lives at HP.”

The sauce, a tangy mix of malt vinegar, dates, sugar, apples, tomato and spices, was invented by a Nottingham grocer and the recipe was sold to the Midland Vinegar Co. in the late 1800s.

In the 1960s, it became known as “Wilson’s Gravy” after the wife of Prime Minister Harold Wilson let slip that his one weakness was that “he will drown everything in HP.”

There was immediate and strong opposition when Heinz announced its plan last August.

Local businesses started a “save our sauce campaign” and lawmakers tried to get the condiment banned from food outlets in the House of Commons, with some waving bottles around during a session of the prime minister’s question time.

Clare Short, a Labor lawmaker who quit the Cabinet over Iraq, called for Britons to boycott Heinz products.

“That’s what they deserve,” she said. “It would give them a real fright. If we can make them reconsider, that would be brilliant.”

Earlier this week, a protester dressed as John Bull, the top-hat-wearing symbol of a typical Englishman, climbed a tower at the Aston factory to hang protest banners. Even workers at the new factory in the Netherlands objected to the move in a show of solidarity with workers in England.

But the various protests were all to no avail.

Heinz, which bought HP from French group Danone in June 2005, said the new factory would save the company $50 million over the next 10 years and claimed that half the workers from the Aston factory had already found new jobs.

“This decision comes after reviewing 17 different packages during a process lasting months,” said Nigel Dickie, a spokesman for Heinz. “We simply could not find a way of continuing production at Aston and filling the financial gap.”

The HP sauce currently holds 71 percent of the $82 million brown sauce market and Heinz is starting a $3.1 million marketing campaign this month to keep consumers.

The campaign will include nationwide TV spots, door drops of samples and coupons as the company invests around $8 million into the iconic brand.

But the advertising campaign has only increased the anger of opponents to the factory move.

“It is ironic that they couldn’t afford to invest to keep the plant open,” said John Jordan, a Transport and General Workers’ Union official for the local area. “Now they are pouring millions into promoting the product because of damage to the brand.”

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