The world is fast acquiring a taste for eating chicken and this is going to offer huge opportunities for poultry producers in Europe and beyond.

That was the optimistic scenario painted by Inma de la Vega, commercial director of poultry for McDonald’s Europe, who outlined some current trends in the foodservice industry.

She cited her own company as an example of how fashionable chicken has become. Back in 1955, when McDonald’s was launched, only hamburgers and cheeseburgers were served and it was not until 1983, nearly three decades later, that chicken was finally added to the menu.

“It was an instant success and we now see 5% growth in sales of chicken dishes compared with 3% for beef,” Ms de la Vega told the World Poultry 2012 conference. “In fact, in the next 20 years we expect to sell more chicken than beef.”

There was a growing public perception, she said, that chicken was the healthier product as well as being more affordable than both beef and seafood.

Turning to current and future food trends, she said that globalisation had increased consumers’ exposure to foreign flavours and cuisine, with many formerly “exotic” products now part of the mainstream.

And, with ever-more of McDonald’s customers adopting busy lifestyles, the public was increasingly plumping for “on-the-go” options.

She advised poultry industry representatives to focus very carefully on such trends in order to tap into the huge potential offered by booming chicken production and sales.

EDUCATING THE CONSUMER

The poultry industry has a “cracking” story to tell, but has been relatively ineffective in getting its message across to customers, according to Peter King of the 2 Sisters Food Group.

“Let’s be honest, we’ve not been great at telling our story. There is a lack of clear information in the shopper’s mind about production,” he told the conference.

This was despite the fact that consumption of chicken had easily overtaken beef, and was rapidly closing in on pork for the top spot among European consumers.

A survey carried out by 2 Sisters showed that families ate chicken at least two or three times a week, and that children ate at least one more portion than the rest of the family.

Even so, he believed the industry needed to connect with the customer more effectively and provide confidence and reassurance in what it does.

All too often, headlines such as “Man dies of bird flu in Far East Asia” gave a disproportionate impression of the public risk from poultrymeat, said Mr King.

In order to tackle this disconnection, the poultry sector had to “sell the benefits of poultry, inform and educate”.

Celebrity chefs, he suggested, had fuelled consumer anxiety about food safety, once again reinforcing the need to engage more in open discussion.

“We have a fantastic product that lots of consumers want, but producing a great product is not enough. Let’s work together to reconnect the consumer with our modern farm-to-fork supply chain,” he suggested.

FACING THE THAI CHALLENGE

European broiler producers and processors are expected to shrug off the return of Thai raw chicken exports to the EU market, following the removal of restrictions imposed after an outbreak of bird flu nine years ago.

Dutch analyst Nan-Dirk Mulder of Rabobank, the leading Dutch-based food and agricultural bank, explained that the EU markets will reopen to Thai imports of raw chicken from 1 July, now that Thailand has successfully eradicated H5N1 avian influenza.

The lifting of the curbs meant Thailand was set to use all its 92,000t quota of salted breast meat exports to the EU, which is the world’s third-biggest broiler meat import market after Japan and Saudi Arabia.

“This is going to be a big issue for the poultry industry and will mark a shift in global trends,” he remarked.

But European processors were expected to be protected from the impact by their focus on fresh chicken, while the biggest losers would be Argentina and, especially, Brazil. “The EU’s fresh meat market will be relatively safe,” said Mr Mulder.

His overall advice to producers was to quickly adapt to the challenges posed by increased competition from emerging countries, a sentiment endorsed by James Sumner of the US Poultry and Egg Export Council, who believed India could soon overtake China as a dominant global poultry player.

Mr Sumner predicted that trade issues, compounded by the emergence of possible new animal disease, would continue to dominate the industry in the coming years.

“Let’s remember,” he told the meeting, “that while earlier consumer scares, such as avian flu, may have subsided, the incidence of HPAI infection is on the increase.”

FOOD SAFETY RECORD

A senior EU Commission official told the conference that efforts to tackle EU-wide food poisoning have, so far, proved “very successful”.

Ladislav Miko, deputy director general of the commission’s health directorate, said he was “very satisfied” with ongoing attempts to control salmonella and campylobacter – the most common form of food poisoning. This was partly the result of a Commission-led strategy launched in the wake of recent food scares such as avian influenza.

“Our strategy has resulted in the number of human cases being reduced by more than 50%,” he said. Cases had fallen from more than 200,000 in 2004 to less than 100,000 in 2010.

Mr Miko said that, since the end of 2011, the two most important types of salmonella – Enteritidis and Typhimurium – were believed to be absent in fresh poultrymeat.

But while biosecurity and hygiene measures had been successful in the control of salmonella, they had been less effective for campylobacter, he added. “Additional tools must be considered,” he argued.

He told the conference the commission had asked EU member states to carry out a survey of campylobacter in broilers. “Based on these findings, we are currently evaluating the economic and social impact of the suggested control measures,” he said.

On the subject of antibiotic resistance, Mr Miko said the industry itself could contribute to solving the problem, by putting pressure on poultry farms to minimise the use of antibiotics.

“The purpose of our strategy is to reduce the use of antibiotics by increased awareness and prudent, justified use without jeopardizing animal health.”

INDUSTRY CHALLENGES

Volatile feed markets and excessive red tape are among the many hurdles facing the industry, British Poultry Council chief executive Peter Bradnock told the conference.

“Much of the world’s poultry production depends on feed, particularly soya, imported from other regions and on access to markets,” he told the audience. Market volatility was exacerbated by exchnage rate volatility, he added.

The sector also needed to guard against local and narrow legislation that added costs and distorted competition in open markets.

“We need to guard against the possibility of EU regulations threatening to hobble the genetic breeding programmes that have driven the success of our industry.”

There was evidence in Europe, and elsewhere, that the “high cost model” of government was unsustainable. “The high cost of legislation includes a high cost of enforcement, which governments can no longer afford.”

Mr Bradnock went on to say that the poultry industry needed to demonstrate that there were viable, industry-managed alternatives to prescriptive and costly official regulations.

His key message to delegates was that the whole industry had to take a lead in tackling these and other issues.

MARKET VOLATILITY

Fluctuating feed costs may not be the only commodity risk facing poultry firms, but it forms by far and away the biggest threat to company profit, accounting for 60% of the cost of the finished product.

And according to Jane Biss of Bernard Matthews Farms, such volatility is set to continue, and perhaps get even worse, in the foreseeable future.

“Those of us who have been part of the meat/feed industry for a number of years will be able to remember back to the easier, less volatile market of six years or so ago,” she said. “Prior to that, market prices moved within the season, but with a 10% movement being the norm.

“But during the past six years we have seen market price movements beyond those we came to expect, with some seasons showing price movements for the main agricultural commodities of over 100%.”

Buying feed at the right time had always been an important factor, she argued, but this had become increasingly so as time had progressed.

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