At a major chicken industry conference in Bristol, delegates heard how to get ahead in challenging times. Michael Barker reports.
Environmental sustainability, the rise of the discounters and avian flu were among the big topics up for discussion at the South West Chicken Association’s annual conference in Bristol on April 25.
With the threat of climate change and the need to farm with the environment front of mind, John Reed, non-executive director at Avara Foods, kicked off the event by describing the poultry supplier’s internal brand, For Good. The strategy focuses around five key areas: People, Planet, Animals, Communities and Consumers.
“It’s about doing our best to do good,” he explained. “We need to be proud of what we do and stand up and say it.” Avara subscribes to the 3 Rs approach of reduce, replace and recycle, Reed said, and is focused on replacing products and services that are not sustainable for ones that are, such as zero-carbon electricity in place of non-renewable energy sources. He also fired a broadside at businesses that simply offset all their emissions, saying: “We can’t just keep planting trees. There’s too much greenwashing going on.”
On the environment front, energy, water, waste, plastics and biodiversity are key focus areas for Avara, which has committed to being net zero by 2040. It has several earlier milestones too, including aiming to reduce its Scope 1 and 2 emissions by 46% by 2030, and its Scope 3 (supply chain) emissions by 28% by the same date, from a 2019 baseline.
Robust data and a scientific approach is essential to success, Reed suggested. To that end, the company has been collecting data from 75 sample farms and using the Agrecalc carbon calculator to measure its progress.
“We hope to be able to share data with farms to allow them to benchmark and understand how to improve,” he explained. One of the toughest areas for reducing a poultry business’s footprint is feed, with soya the biggest contributor. The company has been trialling the solution du jour, black soldier fly, and while Reed suggested it’s not a silver bullet, it could become part of the mix once the UK regulatory environment allows it. It is also looking at precision nutrition.
Elsewhere he revealed that Avara Foods has made commitments to playing its part in addressing issues relating to the River Wye – which is failing its consent and was described by Reed as the “biggest single issue in Herefordshire by far”.
“Rivers are failing and big fingers are being pointed at the poultry industry, unfairly in some respects,” said Reed, who nevertheless cautioned that poultry manure contains phosphates, which can find its way into rivers through soil diffusion.
“There are more catchment areas that will have restrictions imposed. We have said we will be accountable for our bit.”
Aldi pride in supplier relationships
Moving onto retail, Josh Smith, buying director at Aldi UK, pointed out that the discounter is now the third-largest seller of meat in the UK, and the second-largest of poultry behind Tesco. The German-owned chain overtrades on poultry by £157m, selling 3.75m packs per week.
“I’m proud to say that poultry is bigger in value than pork, beef and lamb combined,” he said, adding that the store only sells 100% fresh British poultry, led by key supplier 2 Sisters Food Group.
Smith stressed that while the business has a laser focus on customers and its affordable price proposition, its partnership with suppliers is equally important. He noted that the Groceries Code Adjudicator has named Aldi best-performing retailer in terms of its reputation among suppliers in seven of the last eight years, which he stressed was particularly important in the current climate.
“It’s clear we recognise the strain and pressure that every business is feeling, whether it’s a direct supplier or people further down the supply chain,” he said. “We are not immune either. For us to have achieved such good scores and reputations within the supply base and have that recognition, has been born from that recognition and working with suppliers.
“There have been lots of inflationary discussions over the last two years. We’ve had to have some robust and challenging conversations [with suppliers] but all of them have been collaborative and for the right reasons, and if anything those relationships are strengthened as a result of them. That is what true partnership is all about.”
Smith noted that Aldi’s contracts are with the processors, not farmers directly, but stressed that “every conversation we have with processors always has the farmers in mind”.
Aldi has seen phenomenal growth in the UK since 2008, and has a target to reach 1,200 stores in the next two years. It has already overtaken Morrisons to become Britain’s fourth-largest supermarket.
AI threat eases, but vigilance is vital
Máire Burnett, technical director at the British Poultry Council, gave a wide-ranging overview of the issues facing the industry. Noting that weekly chick placements for March were down 3% on a year ago, she said the decline reflected the many challenges facing producers right now, not least the cost-of-production crisis.
Avian flu remains a huge concern, but there are positive signs. The number of cases reported has now hit 336 since October 27 2021, with H5N1 also found in wild mammals including otters and seals this winter. But the lifting of zones in recent weeks was a welcome development, she said, adding that the BPC wants to see Defra taking a risk-based approach.
While there has been a change in compensation arrangements, Burnett argued it does not go far enough and should come at the time of confirmation to bring poultry in line with other livestock species.
Vaccination is a hot topic with many moving parts, she continued. An industry/government vaccination task force was set up at the beginning of this year and has been looking at the availability and cost of vaccines, with turkey, ducks, laying hens and some broiler breeders most likely to be the recipients if a suitable candidate is found. Currently, however, Burnett warned that vaccine surveillance in this country could cost £200 million a year, which could prove a major stumbling block. And then there are issues around trade barriers in terms of exports of breeding stock in particular, NGO acceptance, and the fact that it would be vital to ensure farmers do not ease up on biosecurity.
Other key points in Burnett’s speech included proposed new animal welfare labelling rules, with farmers urged to feed into Defra’s consultation. A tiered, A-E labelling system has been proposed, with broilers, laying hens and pigs the focus sectors and the possible introduction of legislation before the end of the current parliament.
Finally, reflecting on Brexit, Burnett said it has been “a hard two years for the industry”, with the livestock industry overall having lost a sobering £116m in certification costs and time since January 2021. The UK urgently needs an SPS (sanitary and phytosanitary) agreement to ease the burden on trade, Burnett concluded, adding that the value of the UK’s breeding stock trade with the EU has already halved since Brexit, with poultry meat sales down by 46%. She did stress, however, that this was also to do with AI.
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