Poultry breeders and the wider industry must do more to explain to consumers and welfare bodies the aims, methods, objectives and achievements of commercial poultry breeding programmes, said this year’s Temperton Fellow.

Delivering his Temperton Fellowship Report at the Farmers Club in London, Aviagen group technical director Ken Laughlin said a misunderstanding by the public was behind a lot of the criticism levelled at the poultry sector in recent years.

In the 1960s, liveweight was almost the only selected trait. “But since then, the number of traits selected has increased to more than 40. The basis for criticism is the perception that current programmes are closer to the 1960s,” he said.

Some of these perceptions may stem from the fact that early descriptions of the breeding process often used the “apple pie” analogy in which traits were assigned to slices.

Therefore, putting more effort (larger slices) into a particular trait would result in less effort (smaller slices) in some other areas, since there is only one pie. So in the early days of mass selection and simple sire-linked programmes, relatively few traits of 3-5 were considered.

But the development of genetic theory, computing power and technologies for more accurate and reliable measurement, which can be used quickly and easily with large numbers of birds, means breeders can now consider more than 40 traits.

“Continuing the analogy, we now know that, historically, we were cutting the slices using the extremely blunt handle of the knife. Now we are making cuts with the precision of a laser cutting tool,” he said.

To conclude, he said breeding could not stand in isolation.

“We already use feedback from various interest groups when setting breeding priorities, including scientists, consumers and processors. We have to listen to them to anticipate future trends. We spend time interacting with retailers, but this is becoming more difficult.”

Next year’s Temperton Fellow is Jeremy Hall, technical director at Bernard Matthews. He is planning to report on living through the avian flu H5N1 outbreak of 2007.