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Balancing sustainability and welfare key for meat sector

Consumer demands for higher welfare and lower emissions must be set against what the industry can realistically, sustainably achieve, delegates were told at the recent Pig and Poultry Forums.

Speaking at the Poultry Meat Outlook seminar, Sophie Throup, head of agriculture, fisheries and sustainable sourcing at retailer Morrisons, said consumer demands were changing, with growing concerns about climate change and protecting biodiversity, alongside ensuring animal welfare and supporting British farming. So, she argued, it was all about finding the right balance and giving consumers a choice.

“This is the most seismic time of change for British farming in generations,” she added.

Consumer demands for higher welfare and lower emissions need to be balanced against realistic, sustainable goals for the industry. Photo: Hans Prinsen
Consumer demands for higher welfare and lower emissions need to be balanced against realistic, sustainable goals for the industry. Photo: Hans Prinsen

Laying out Morrisons’ welfare drive in the poultry meat sector, she said the company was looking to move to 100% in-house hatched birds by 2025. Currently, 80% of fresh poultry is already in-house hatched.

The supermarket also supports projects to improve catching protocols, boost stockmanship and training, and is working towards launching its slower growing Hubbard Redbro bird early next year to provide consumers with more choice. The Redbro bird is being reared at a lower stocking density.

In the laying hen sector, Ms Throup highlighted that the company now has 100% free range in all its shell eggs and was well on its way to meeting its 100% cage free ingredient egg commitment by the 2025 deadline.

The supermarket is also putting money into projects covering additional enrichments and understanding how to reduce the need to beak trim. It recently set up the British Laying Hen Academy with its major free range egg supplier Chippindale Foods at Bishop Burton College.

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These welfare developments come at a time when Morrisons expects next year to have the first net zero carbon eggs in store and to be supplied directly by all net zero UK farms by 2030. It is working with Harper Adams University to develop the first School of Sustainable Food and Farming, which will look at further developing production systems research geared towards diet composition, yield improvements, sensors, use of data, precision farming, and on-farm renewables.

David Neilson, general manager of poultry at Avara Foods, said that while it might be easy to find improvements in one area – such as emissions – that would interact with other areas – like accessibility of food for consumers.

Commenting on the European Chicken Commitment and its drive towards lower stocking density, slower growing breeds, he asked: “Does improving welfare – having free-range, slower grown birds – come at a cost to the environment?”

The Red Tractor Assurance scheme would by 2023 meet some of the ECC standards, such as enrichments and natural lights, but not necessarily around stocking density and slower growing breeds.

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With the European Commission on course to reauthorise the use of Processed Animal Protein (PAP), Mr Neilson said it could offer something different to soy, but whatever soy-substitute was used in the future, it would need backing from retailers and consumers and a strong investment in the supply chain.

The poultry meat sector, he concluded, also needed to embrace and invest in new technology, particularly in the light of Brexit and the loss of Eastern European labour. Avara Foods was likely to use compressed biogas for its trucks in the future.

Herefordshire broiler farmer Jonty Hay agreed, saying robotics, sensors, and blockchain all had a role to play, adding that the ongoing impact of avian influenza meant that biosecurity needed to be at the highest level at all times.

Brian Kenyon, ABN senior nutrition manager, said: “We need to strike a balance in terms of setting targets and what the industry can realistically achieve.”