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.”