A study done by the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES) has predicted that chicken will continue to be the favoured consumer protein choice.
Red Lea Chickens has been placed into voluntary administration and, as result, more than 500 workers have lost their jobs.
The company said in a statement posted on its website that it and certain related entities were placed into Voluntary Administration with McGrathNicol partners; Barry Kogan, Jason Preston and Kathy Sozou appointed as Administrators.
“Due to the financial position of the companies, we regret to advise that the Administrators are unable to trade the business and have no alternative other than to undertake an orderly wind-down of operations,” said the statement.
The sacked workers are from the company’s processing plant in the Western Sydney suburb of Blacktown as well as retail stores. The company has operated for over 60 years from this Blacktown site.
When I am asked by friends what I do for living, I tend to raise eyebrows because my job is somewhat odd to many city people. That’s because I’m a poultry nutritionist.
Typically, the conversation turns into a friendly debate on the myths around eating chicken. Do we feed chicken hormones? Are any chickens genetically engineered? Do free range chickens taste better? And so on.
So to save everyone some time, here are some of the most common questions I get asked, and the answers I give.
1) Should you buy hormone-free chicken?
The truth is that no chickens or eggs produced in Australia contain added hormones, and they have not been given hormones for decades.
Independent tests by the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, as part of the National Residue Survey, confirm that Australian chicken meat is free of added hormones.
Not that it would be easy to give them hormones anyway. Growth hormones are proteins similar to insulin used to treat diabetes.
Like insulin, they can only be injected into the body because they are broken down in the digestive tract. Therefore, it is pointless to provide chickens growth hormones in their food because they would be rendered ineffective.
And given a typical commercial shed may accommodate 40,000 to 60,000 birds per shed, it is simply logistically impossible to inject hormones into each chicken.
2) Are meat chickens genetically modified to grow fast?
Our chickens are not genetically modified, and their genes have not been altered artificially. Modern meat chickens grow more quickly and are more “meaty” than chicken breeds available decades ago due to selective breeding and optimal nutrition.
Just like pedigree dog breeders breed their puppies for desired traits, selective breeding involves those animals that show the desirable characteristics being selected as the parents for the next generation in the breeding program, and this process being repeated over many generations.
In the 1960s, the goal of selective breeding in meat chickens was simply increased growth rate and increased meat production. Nowadays, the focus has changed from growth and yield to a broad spectrum of outcomes, with a clear emphasis on improving animal welfare, reproduction and overall fitness.
3) Are meat chickens raised in cages?
All commercial meat chickens are kept in large poultry sheds on litter floors, covered with things like rice hulls or wood shavings. They are not kept in cages.
Additionally, some meat chickens also have access to the outdoors, such as those often referred to as either free-range or organic. A simple comparison is shown below.
4) Are free range chickens happier and healthier?
Not always. In fact, free range chickens are more likely to catch diseases, get injured and die earlier than those kept inside.
In the UK, free range egg layers have a mortality rate of 8-10%, which is far higher than caged hens’ death rate of 2-4%.
The contact between free range chickens and wild birds also increases the risk of spreading bird flu. And birds can die from over-consuming grass.
Cannibalism can also happen in egg layers and it is a big challenge for free range egg production systems in particular.
We always assume animals behave in a civilised manner. But the fact is free range layer hens may peck each other to death. Cannibalism in poultry is part of their natural behaviour and, unfortunately, it has proven difficult to get rid of.
5) Do free range or organic chickens taste better?
There is very little data supporting the idea that free range or organic chickens actually taste better than conventionally farmed ones.
Commercial meat chickens do not tend to like running around, as they were selected to maximise their growth. So it’s a myth that more exercise makes chicken meat more tender.
6) Why are some meat chickens yellow in colour?
In some cultures, chickens with yellow fat and skin are considered to be better quality. However, this is not true.
The yellowness of the skin, fat and egg yolk depends on the level of beta carotene in the diets. So those yellow chickens are fed with a corn-based diet, which is higher in beta carotene.
7) Are meat and egg laying chickens the same breed?
The meat and egg industries have different requirements, and use different breeds of bird.
The only eggs produced in the meat industry are those needed to produce the next generation of chickens.
Ross and Cobb birds are the two common commercial breeds selected for meat production.
The egg industry houses their hens quite differently and uses very different breeds of chickens, which are bred selectively over many generations to exhibit optimal egg producing characteristics.
The common breeds of laying hens in Australia are the Hyline Brown and the Isa Brown.
8) Why are some eggs white and others brown?
The colour of eggshells is the result of pigments being deposited during egg formation. The type of pigment depends upon the breed and is genetically determined.
To get a hint about the egg colour, look at the colour of the chicken’s ear lobes!
Interestingly, people have strong preferences for different egg shell colours in different markets. In Australia and parts of Asia, brown eggs are preferred, whereas in the US and Japan, people prefer white eggs.
The nutritional value of the egg only depends on the chickens’ diet, not the system of production or the colour of the egg shell.
For example, it has been shown that vitamin D-enhanced eggs can be produced if the diet is supplemented with high level of an active form of vitamin D.
9) What types of chickens do restaurants use?
It is often difficult to tell.
Fast food chains are more likely to use chickens produced conventionally unless specially labelled. Restaurants vary in the chickens they use. If you prefer a particular type of chicken, be sure to ask before you order.
10) Does Australia import chickens from elsewhere?
All the raw chicken meat available in Australia is grown in Australia.
According to Australian Chicken Meat Federation, we consumed 45.3kg of chicken meat per person in 2015, which means 870 grams of chicken meat per week.
Last year, more than 1.1 million tonnes of chicken meat was produced in Australia and almost all of it was consumed here.
The claim “produced in Australia” is applicable to almost all chicken meat sold in Australia with only very small quantities of cooked chicken meat being imported from New Zealand and some canned products containing chicken also potentially imported.
Sonia will be online for an Author Q&A between 1:30 and 2:30 on Wednesday, 27 July, 2016. Post any questions you have in the comments below.
Advanced technology and sustainability initiatives are key drivers in ensuring that poultry processing in Australia continues to be a significant growth industry into the future, writes Hartley Henderson.
Australian chicken meat production is forecast to increase by 3 per cent to 1.16 million tonnes by 2015-16 and is projected to reach 1.36 million tonnes by 2020-21.
According to Ingham’s Director of Operations Excellence, Quinton Hildebrand, the company has implemented a substantial capital investment program over the past 12 to 18 months aimed at greater efficiencies, increased food safety, and substantially increased processing capacity.
“This investment has focussed on our two largest primary processing plants in Murrarie, Queensland and Bolivar, South Australia,” he told Food & Beverage Industry News.
“Increased automation in the primary processing plant allows Ingham’s to increase its volume of production significantly with limited additional requirements of space on the shop floor and of skilled labour. The strong growth of our business allows the workforce to be redeployed within our operation.”
Hildebrand explained that the main strategy is to reduce the company’s dependency on manual deboning, the process where the various parts are removed from the carcase and bones and skin removed.
“Another aspect is computer controlled portion cutting which ensures not only exact portions but also optimises the use of the available product. Finally, improvements in the palletising and handling of the product streamline the process and increase efficiencies,” he said.
Ingham’s has also developed a comprehensive and integrated sustainability strategy centred around water stewardship, environmental management, energy and climate change, zero waste, and corporate citizenship.
According to Group Head of Business Sustainability Julia Seddon, sustainability is a focus for the organisation and a key business objective, which helps to identify business improvements and potential efficiencies.
“Recent sustainability initiatives include a climate resilience assessment which is being used by the NSW government as a template for other organisations to assess their climate change risks. In addition, we have ongoing participation in a collaborative supply chain Life Cycle Analysis program with a major customer, and have employed a full time energy manager,” she told Food & Beverage Industry News.
Seddon pointed out that the primary processing of poultry requires large volumes of water to ensure clean, safe food production.
“Increased consumer demand for poultry products, combined with one of the worst droughts ever experienced in south east Queensland, created a need for innovation at our Murarrie site in Brisbane,” she explained.
“The site had already reduced water use by around 20 per cent through improved measurement, monitoring, water saving projects, and increased employee awareness, but further reduction required a significant shift in thinking.
“Inghams recognised the need for action and invested in an advanced water treatment plant. The groundbreaking application of advanced water treatment technology has reduced reliance on mains water supply by 70 per cent and decoupled company growth from water scarcity.
“This significant reduction in water use represents world’s best practice in water use management and is the first time such technology has been used to treat wastewater from a poultry processing plant anywhere in the world to substitute for potable water.”
Commenting on key trends in the industry, Hazeldene’s General Manager Marketing, Michelle Daniel, points to a growing trend for the big supermarkets to tend towards private label brands instead of producer brands.
“With poultry becoming a vast commodity, driven largely by price, this presents an opportunity for smaller supermarkets and niche players to differentiate with brands. The price war on chicken that commenced in October 2015 has driven more volume into the big supermarkets, and from a production perspective, the supermarkets are looking for better buying at higher volumes,” she told Food & Beverage industry News.
“This works well for bigger players that can take advantage of pushing larger volumes through, but is more challenging for smaller players.
“In terms of range of products, there are really three levels of poultry differentiation in Australia: traditionally produced poultry, RSPCA Accredited, and Free Range Accredited.
“These flock types will continue but differentiation in the future may look to topics more broadly than welfare, like the exclusion of antibiotics, or antibiotic growth promotants, and the chemicals used in chicken production. Value added products will continue to develop as well as many flavours on trend being adopted in poultry products.”
Daniel said that from a primary production perspective, the newest technologies in the world include controlled atmospheric stunning, evisceration equipment, aeroscalding, and air chilling.
“Controlled atmospheric stunning is a method of slaughter that is one of the most humane in the world, and endorsed by the RSPCA. Birds are kept very calm and put to sleep using different levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide, and then slaughtered unconscious,” she explained.
“Evisceration equipment leads the way in effectiveness and safety. Machines are very well guarded, and inspection points are in different rooms to machinery, meaning the interactions between employees and machines are minimised.
“Traditionally, Australian producers use an ‘immersion scalding method’ prior to plucking, but newest technology adopts Aeroscalding which keeps birds on the chain, and they go through a room that is filled with clean, hot, steamy, mist that comes out of jets, hits the skin of the bird, and opens up the pores to allow easy plucking. Benefits include much lower microbiological load on the carcass through reduced cross contamination that immersion scalding causes, as well as using less water, and retaining all skin layers.
“Air chilling technology has been around for quite a long time but adoption in the Australian industry is low compared with water chilling. Air chilling reduces the water retention in birds which extends shelf life, and customers get more protein, less water and a better tasting meat.”
Daniel advised that Hazeldene’s is an early adopter of new technology and innovation. The company commissioned air chilling in 2006 and a new primary processing facility in 2012, which includes controlled atmospheric stunning, new evisceration technology, and aeroscalding.
“The new primary processing facility allowed us to reduce employee levels, while increasing production, and make the roles in that area safer and more sustainable. We will be looking for more productivity enhancements and efficiencies with further capital plans in the future that focus on the packaging end of our business,” she said.
“The biggest issue we face is competitive forces in the market driving the prices down to unsustainable levels for a quality focussed player. Chicken has become so commoditised that quality can lose its message and relevance when price is the key driver. It is up to us to find quality focussed markets, and continue to differentiate on quality.”
Consumer advocacy group Choice has released its latest research highlighting consumers’ desire for a strong and meaningful free-range egg standard in Australia that would recognise the need for hens to regularly go outside, have room to move inside and outside, and for farmers to undertake animal welfare practices.
The consumer group is calling for producers who fall short of consumers’ expectations to label their products in a way that accurately reflects their production practices, for example ‘access to range’.
“Consumers have a firm idea of what they believe free-range to mean and they want a standard to reflect these expectations. Creating a new category such as ‘access to range’ will provide consumer choice and confidence while catering to different production models,” said Choice spokesperson Tom Godfrey.
The Choice research found that consumers believe it is important, very important or essential that the following elements are included in a standard:
• 87% said that birds actually go outside regularly.
• 91% said that birds have room to move comfortably when they are outdoors.
• 89% said that farmers undertake animal welfare practices in the production of their eggs.
“With free-range eggs costing almost double than caged, the purpose of a standard for free-range eggs should be to give consumers accurate information so they can decide whether they wish to pay a premium,” Godfrey said.
“A standard should not be used to shield producers who might be misleading consumers.”
“With no national standard for free-range eggs, consumers are getting ripped off. Earlier this year, we found that a minimum of 213 million eggs were sold as free-range in 2014 that didn’t meet consumers’ expectations of free-range.”
“It’s time to stop big egg producers cashing in on consumers’ desire to buy eggs that meet a higher standard of welfare without delivering a product that meets these claims,” said Godfrey.
Choice also noted that some egg producers are actively lobbying through this process for a standard that sets a lower benchmark for free-range production than the definition established through case law (which is that at a minimum, most chickens go outside on most ordinary days).
Rather than broadening the definition of free-range to accommodate big egg producers, consumers (62%) think that producers whose products fall short of a free-range standard should be able to label their products in a way that accurately reflects their production practices, for example ‘access to range’.
“Importantly, this approach will provide certainty for those large-scale producers who might be at risk of misleading consumers. Instead of remaining at risk of ACCC action or having to change their production practices, they can simply adopt more accurate labeling and give consumers genuine information about how their products are produced. That would be a win for consumers and a win for egg farmers, large and small,” Godfrey said.
Submissions to the government’s free-range egg labelling consultation process close on November 27 with the Government likely to make a decision on a standard in February next year.
A good breakfast often features a couple of free-range local eggs. But what does “free range” really mean for the hens that laid them?
Whatever it is, consumers want it. More than 69 million dozen free-range eggs were sold in Australian grocery stores last year, and the share of free-range label sales has steadily increased over the past five years. Sales of barn-laid eggs have also risen, but sales of cage eggs have plummeted.
Retailers, alert to the changing consumer demand, have implemented cage egg phase-out policies, choosing alternatives that are seen as kinder to hens. But consumers' ideas of what makes the happiest hens do not always match up with research findings about welfare.
The exact definition of optimal health and welfare conditions is debatable, but what is certain is that modern chickens come from genetic stock that have been bred for cages – conditions that are now rejected by consumers.
Production practices are tuned to maximise profit, but this includes consideration of hen health because the purchase of new stock is a major production cost. Keeping hens healthy saves farmers money.
The types of production systems used worldwide include conventional cages, furnished cages, barns and free-range farming. Conventional cages normally consist of a feeder and drinker, and wire flooring that is slanted to ensure that eggs roll out of the cage to remain clean and undamaged. Hens are kept in groups of up to 12, at stocking densities of 20-25 birds per square metre.
Farmers sometimes choose lower stocking densities than the law requires because this results in fewer eggs being broken and healthier hens. Hens in conventional cages have their beaks trimmed, yet often suffer feather pecking from their cage mates.
Another major problem in conventional cages (which is not necessarily improved by other systems) is leg and keel (sternum) bone breaks. Animal interest groups often highlight the wire flooring of the cages, but the wire flooring actually reduces the incidence of foot infections (called bumblefoot) in the hens.
In the European Union, cages are now required to be furnished, rather than conventional. Furnished cages are larger and have lower stocking densities of about 10 birds per sq m.
The hens also have access to a scratching pad, a perch (which improves leg bone health) and a nesting box. The scratching pad allows hens to exhibit normal scratching and substrate pecking behaviours, and reduces feather pecking behaviours.
Furnished cage hens still suffer from pecking from cage mates despite the presence of the scratching pad, but mitigating this problem further is an active area of research.
Barn egg production is different again. The stocking density is 7-10 birds per sq m or more, and the group sizes are very large, with a single shed potentially containing thousands of birds. The birds are free to move about the barn and are often provided with furnishings to encourage natural behaviours such as scratching and pecking the floor.
Hens need to be trained to use nest boxes, and may be kept in smaller areas in denser groups until they reliably use the nest. Due to the solid flooring and accumulated food and faeces, bumblefoot can be rife in barns. Feather pecking and bone problems are still significant, perhaps exacerbated by the very large group size.
Typical free-range egg production in Australia involves hens kept in a shed that may or may not be furnished with scratch pads or perches. There are nest boxes and daylight access to the outdoors. Stocking density is measured by the total range size, but as layer hens have been bred for cage rearing they are often fearful of the outdoors and rarely use the range available.
Major retailers require a stocking density of 10,000 birds per hectare (one bird per sq m). In contrast, the RSPCA requires a stocking density of no more than 1,500 hens per ha, and the European Union’s limit is 2,500 hens per ha. High densities of hens quickly destroy the pasture forage, so the EU requirement is probably the maximum stocking density that can be maintained on rotated pastures if birds are to be provided with fresh green forage.
Choosing the best option
Welfare research comparing these production scenarios measures the prevalence of stress-related behaviours such as feather pecking and dust-bathing, as well as bone health in hens kept in experimental and in real production settings.
Perhaps surprisingly, the best welfare measures are often found in furnished cages, though the European LayWel project found that management practices, and especially stocking density, were more important than the production system itself.
The surest way to stress a hen is to frequently change its social group, so consumers concerned about the welfare of laying hens should choose eggs from farms with the lowest stocking densities and/or smallest production groups. This means that barn-laid eggs are probably the worst welfare option, and furnished cages and very low stocking density free-range offer the best welfare. Shoppers will need to demand the use of furnished cages and stocking density labels in Australia to facilitate consumer choice.
The egg industry will need to completely overhaul egg production if it is to meet consumer expectations of hen welfare. The genetic stock of modern layer breeds will need to be assessed and modified for characteristics that are better suited to free-range settings. But this will take time to refine.
In the meantime there may be other ways to improve welfare, such as by ensuring that breeder birds and chicks destined for free-range production are raised to prepare them for the free-range, rather than cage, environment.
This could take the industry a long way towards meeting consumer desires for happy hens. But consumers will need to be aware of the real dollar cost of high-welfare food production, so they know what they are paying for when they choose between carton labels at the grocery store.
BriAnne will be taking part in an Ask An Expert Q&A on Twitter from noon to 1pm on Friday, October 30. Head over to Twitter and post your questions about free-range chickens using #AskAnExpert.
Consumer advocacy group Choice has welcomed today’s start of consultations on free-range egg labelling as the next step in ending the ‘free-range’ rip off.
Choice says that the consultation paper, released by the Hon Kelly O’Dwyer MP on behalf of the nation’s consumer affairs ministers, paints a clear picture of the current free-range farce and identifies options for unscrambling the problem.
“As the consultation paper shows, an increasing number of Australians are paying a premium for eggs labelled free-range without having any certainty they’re getting what they pay for,” said Matt Levey, Choice Director of Campaigns and Communications.
“In the absence of a national, enforceable standard for free-range, it is relatively easy to mislead consumers, and unfortunately there is a financial incentive for some producers to do so. The result is that consumers lose, as do producers of genuine free-range eggs,” Mr. Levey said.
The consultation follows a Choice investigation in June this year estimating a minimum of 213 million eggs sold in Australia last year under the 'free-range' label failed to meet consumers' expectations of the free-range claim.
“Based on consumers’ expectations, it’s estimated Australians could be paying between $21-$43 million per year for eggs that aren’t the real deal,” Mr. Levey said
“It’s a rip-off that distorts the market and undermines competition, and that’s why it’s so important that governments step in and agree a genuine free-range standard that reflects what consumers expect.
“Our research has shown that 84 per cent of egg buyers agree that a mandatory national standard is needed while only 2 per cent did not believe there should be a standard. Clearly it’s time to get cracking.”
With consultations open until 2 November, Choice is calling on consumers to support a genuine standard and contribute to a free-range information campaign.
"Support for the campaign has been overwhelming with consumers already donating almost $9,000 to send a message to government that they want real free-range," said Mr. Levey.
CHOICE welcomes the Federal Court’s ruling to fine Darling Downs Fresh Eggs for engaging in misleading conduct and making misleading representations in its labelling and promotion of eggs as ‘free range’.
The news follows an ongoing CHOICE campaign calling for an enforceable national standard that will set out what ‘free range’ really means.
“Today’s ruling highlights the need for a national standard so that consumers can have confidence in this market”, says CHOICE Head of Media, Tom Godfrey.
“Darling Downs isn’t the only bad egg in the free range market. In July, CHOICE found that many egg products in the supermarket do not meet consumers’ expectations of free range.”
“With the government in the process of developing a national standard, we are calling for a standard that meets consumers’ expectations of free range.”
The Court found that by labelling and promoting eggs as ‘free range’, Darling Downs Fresh Eggs represented to consumers that the eggs were produced by hens which were able to move about freely on an open range each day, and that most of the hens did in fact do so on most days.
In fact, Darling Downs Fresh Eggs admitted that the doors to its barns were kept shut at all times so that none of the laying hens were able to access or use the outdoor range.
“CHOICE will continue to feed into the free range standard development process. We want consumers who choose to pay a premium for free range to be confident that they’re getting what they pay for,” says Mr Godfrey.
“Eggs claiming to be free range cost up to twice as much as cage eggs despite the wide variation in how they are produced. A national standard will help us unscramble the meaning of free range, benefiting egg eaters across the country.”