ANALYSIS - Poultry accounts for more than 40 per cent of all eat that is eaten in the UK, whereas pork, the second most popular meat accounts for 30 per cent.
However, in some areas the poultry industry has to improve its communication to consumers about how poultry meat is produced, the welfare conditions used for rearing the birds and the safety of the products.
Speaking at the recent Agricultural and Horticultural Development Board Outlook Conference in London, Chris Dickinson from the National Farmers Union said that last year UK poultry producers produced 1.4 million tonnes of broiler meat – 35 per cent more than was being produced in the1990s.
Turkey producers produced 189,000 tonnes of turkey meat and the UK is more than 80 per cent self-sufficient in poultry meat.
“After years of decline, the turkey industry has started to pick up,” Mr Dickinson said.
However, he added that while the country is largely self-sufficient there is a large carcase imbalance that means the industry has to import beast meat and export the dark meat. Most of the imports come from Continental Europe.
Globally, he said that poultry meat consumption is growing more than in any other sector and by 2021 it is expected to overtake pork as the most widely eaten meat
About three quarters of the British poultry sector is integrated and these integrated companies attempt to control their feed costs, which can be up to 65 per cent of the cost of production, by entering into feed tracker contracts.
“With tracker contracts, poultry producers have more confidence,” he said.
“But feed price volatility is something we have to live with.”
In all 943 million broiler chicks are placed each year and the slaughter figures that have been rising rapidly since the 1990s have now reached 902 million birds.
Most of the industry is also producing either standard or standard plus birds that have a stocking density of 38 kilograms per square metre. These birds reach a slaughter weight of about 2.4 kg in about 40 days with an average weight gain of 60 grams a day.
A total of 14 per cent of the industry is higher welfare birds that are produced for supermarket chains such as Waitrose and Marks and Spencer. These birds are slower growing putting on just 45 grams a day and have an enriched environment for growing on.
Just three per cent of production is free range and one per cent is organic.
Mr Dickinson said he did not foresee the free range poultry meat market growing in the same way as the free range egg market has grown in the UK, because he said it is more difficult to raise a free range bird.
The main factors that are driving growth in the poultry meat sector are a combination of rising demand together with the fact that the sector is unsubsidised and well integrated in the UK.
However, the cost of building a new poultry shed of about £500,000 for a 40,000 or 50,000 bird shed means that the farmer has to see a good return on investment.
Because of the integration in the sector, many arable farmers are now also looking to diversify into mixed poultry farms because there are opportunities for growth and there is a quick turn-around.
Mr Dickinson said that to see the sector growing, the producers have to ensure there is a good public image and perception of production methods.
“We have to push the welfare aspect and the care and attention given to the birds, even in a 40,000 or 50,000 bird sheds.”
Another aspect that needs to be addressed to ensure a good public image is the challenge of campylobacter in poultry meat.
He said that the Food Standards Agency is making campylobacter a priority and the industry is looking at ways at reducing contamination such as freeze blasting the carcases, although even this does not eradicate the problem entirely.
Another concern is the threat of antibiotic resistance, but he said there is also a great misunderstanding among consumers about resistance, antibiotics and the use of vaccines.
He said that human use of antibiotics in the most important contributor of AMR I n human pathogens but assurance schemes are at present tightening their codes on medicines and reporting and the UK poultry sector is working with the Responsible Use of Antibiotics in Agriculture organisation to reduce use and inform the public about their use.