Breeding for alternative markets

18-11-2015 | | |
Consumers in many parts of the world have greater spending power and are creating demand for the perceived welfare and eating quality differences of slow-growing birds, compared with conventionally produced broilers. [Photo: World Poultry]
Consumers in many parts of the world have greater spending power and are creating demand for the perceived welfare and eating quality differences of slow-growing birds, compared with conventionally produced broilers. [Photo: World Poultry]

The demand for differentiation in broiler meat production methods is making its mark in the broiler market. An overview of several alternative markets and insights into how primary breeder organisations work hard to meet consumer demands.

Alternative, slow-growth segments in the world broiler market have existed for decades, with some catered to by traditional and others by specialist breeds. A strengthening in the global economy has led to a growing interest in diversifying the range of broiler products on offer and, in particular, in slow-growing breeds of broilers. “The reasons for the growth of this segment in the European market have been driven by two key factors,” says Otto van Tuijl, regional technical manager of Aviagen EPI. “Firstly, retailers are striving to find particular points of difference in their marketplaces and slow-growing birds can provide them. Secondly, consumers in many parts of the world have greater spending power and are creating demand for the perceived welfare and eating quality differences of slow-growing birds, compared with conventionally produced broilers.” Within Europe, a wealth of different broiler growing systems have evolved, ranging from alternative indoor growing systems with enriched environment at reduced stocking densities to alternative diets, free range and organic birds. “These schemes are often supported by independent certification systems such as Beter Leven and Kip van Morgen in the Netherlands and Freedom Food in the UK, Tierschutz label in Germany and Label Rouge in France. In these schemes, the slower growing breeds and, particularly, breeds that combine slow growth with meat-production efficiency have an important role to play,” says Van Tuijl.

Differences in broiler parent stock within the EU

According to a report from the EFSA, 7% of all broiler parent stock in the EU are there for the production of slow(er) growing broilers. But there are considerable differences between individual EU countries. For instance, in traditional-cuisine-oriented France, the slow(er) growing parent stock market share has been around 35% for many years. Southern and Eastern European countries focus mainly on traditional and seasonal backyard markets. Developments of alternative 
products are mainly driven by animal welfare, human health, food safety and tradition. “The drivers differ per country,” says Hubbard’s business director, Paul van Boekholt. “While in Southern Europe the most important reason to develop a slow(er) growing chicken is tradition, in Northern Europe animal welfare, followed by the use of antibiotics, are the most important drivers. In America, the growth of slow(er) growing chicken markets is primarily due to the growth of ethnic markets, now followed by concerns about human health and food safety. For just a few years now, reducing the use of antibiotics has become an extremely important issue there, especially in the conventional broiler markets.”

Dutch farmer Elly de Kort was one of the first to adopt the slower growing broiler. The birds have access to a winter garden and are less on edge than conventional birds. “That eases the farmer’s mind as well.” [Photo: Bert Jansen]

Slow growing chicken market

Following the home market in France, England was the global frontrunner in alternative broiler markets 15 years ago because animal welfare was the trending demand of many retailers,” comments Cobb Europe’s Parent stock sales manager, Wout van Wolfswinkel. “But this trend slowed when the financial crisis of 2008 hit and consumers noticed too little difference between the meat of regular chickens and that of slow-growing chickens, other than price differences.” Supermarkets chose not to focus on slow-growing chickens and looked for solutions in regular broiler meat, as animal welfare took a back seat to the low cost of regular chicken meat. The demand for the intermediate segment also arose in other parts of the world, including Asia and North and South America. Looking at other parts of the world, where alternative breeding stock is used, it is largely the highly developed countries that are developing alternative products. Northern and Western Europe, America is starting to, and Japan,” says Van Boekholt. In Asia alternative breeds are used because of the tradition there, as they find better quality and denser meat important, and they prefer slower growth. “They keep extremely slow-growing chickens. Also other markets are producing slower growing chickens, such as Saudi-Arabia, where it is very hot and humid, which makes keeping chickens difficult. Slow-growing breeds are more robust and better able to cope with extreme weather conditions.”

Future developments

Van Boekholt thinks this will also apply to future developments in alternative markets. “It is the more developed countries that can afford the more expensive alternative breeds. Poor countries’ first aim is to produce (cheap) food. Their focus is different from ours.” Having said that, Van Boekholt does expect a further general genetic improvement in robustness, combined with a further decrease in the use of antibiotics in the future, as the demand grows for more robust chickens that can cope with different circumstances and have low mortality rates; using slow(er) growing chickens is one of the solutions. “In America, the country of large volumes and cost effective production, antibiotic-free production is the current trend,” he says. “Large fast-food chains and retailers have decided to stop selling meat with certain strains of antibiotics in production. Currently, approximately 25% of the total production volume is without the use of antibiotics or at least without specific strains of antibiotics. Animal welfare is less of an issue in the US, with the exception of California, which follows the European animal welfare trend.” Slow(er) growing chickens fit right into this trend, as they are more robust and less prone to stress and diseases, and therefore need no or much less treatment with antibiotics.

Depending on the lable under which the slow-growing birds are produced, the rules of production vary. Access to the outdoors is usually demanded by most ‘alternative’ systems within the alternative systems. [Photo: Ton Kastermans]


In short, demand is increasing, but still relatively small on a global scale. Yet using fast-growth genetics for these alternative markets without negative effects is impossible, as conventional products cover fast-growth rate levels and a young age at slaughter. Differentiated markets deal with different housing systems, husbandry practices and phenotypes. Genetics have to be adapted to suit the different requirements in a natural way. “Genetics can’t be ‘twisted’ halfway through the production process,” Van Boekholt explains. “Parent stock and broilers need to fit the specific requirements from the start. A whole different approach and different mind-set is required.”

Hubbard started breeding their Premium product range nearly 50 years ago based on the requirements of the high-end Label Rouge market in France and the speciality market in Japan. When, in the early 1990s, an intermediate segment developed in France, they joined forces with the company DUC and started to mate a breeder female used for the Label Rouge market (JA57) with a conventional breeder male. Ten years later, Hubbard brought this same combination to the UK, as demand for slow(er) growing chickens rose. But as they were looking for more breast meat, better feed conversion and slightly faster growth, the JA57 breeder female was not fully suitable for this new market. So Hubbard developed a new breeder female (JA87) that better met the demand in the UK and possibly other future markets. In 2006, after seven years of selection, Hubbard was ready to introduce the JA87 onto the UK market. “Through a wide range of Premium breeder females and (Premium) breeder males, customers can make their own combination to suit their specific needs best. This ranges from organic, Label Rouge, 81-day and 56-day free range to the chickens grown indoors,” Van Boekholt says. “But our breeding job is never finished. We have intensified and adapted the Premium R&D programme to changes in consumption patterns and to the increased demand for conformity, meat quality and robustness.”

Cobb and Sasso collaborate

For Cobb, entering the alternative market was less obvious, as Cobb focuses on the development of broilers with efficiency as its main goal. “The slow-growing market is a new market for us,” Van Wolfswinkel admits. “Moreover, developing an entire new genetic pool with slow-growing lines is very costly to maintain.” That is why Cobb chose to collaborate with a player that has been very active in the slow-grower field for decades. “By joining forces with Sasso, we benefit from the knowledge and expertise of both extremes of the industry,” Van Wolfswinkel says. “Sasso has a broad range of brands and types, varying from organic chickens to the slow-growing concept with various colours and flavours, which enables us to create various crosses.” Cobb and Sasso jointly created a mid market by crossing a regular broiler with Sasso, providing a range of 40 to 50 grams of daily gain. “For Cobb this is slow, for Sasso this is fast.” When Cobb Sasso started their breeding programme six years ago, they based their efforts on the point of difference in England. “This resulted in the 40 grams of daily gain in the CobbSasso 150 and the CobbSasso 175, with a daily gain of 45 grams. We are currently testing an upgrade of the 175, which will give 50 grams of growth per day with a stronger focus on increasing the slaughter yield.” Feedback from the market is a critical success factor in meeting market demands. Van Wolfswinkel: “Over the last decade, the mid segment focused on a daily gain of 40 to 45 grams and a little bit of colour to distinguish itself from other products.”

For the Chicken of Tomorrow scheme, natural light through windows is sufficient when it comes to natural day and night rhythm. [Photo: Ton Kastermans]

Aviagen invests in new range

When Aviagen foresaw a demand for slow-growth broilers, they invested in dedicated product development exclusively for this sector. “We have used a range of specialised lines selected for robustness and, importantly, feed conversion and meat yield,” Van Tuijl explains. “It was important to provide both slower growth and good meat-production economics to make these strains economically viable options across a range of production systems.” This is how the product range of Rowan Range evolved. Aviagen initially entered the market with the Rowan Ranger, a brown broiler now established in the true slow-growth segment, with Freedom Foods, Beter Leven and Privathof accreditation. “We also recently launched the Ross Ranger, which is a slow-to-intermediate growth bird with segment-leading meat production,” Van Tuijl says. “The combination is accredited by the German Welfare Association. Aviagen is investing in a new range for the organic chicken market – we expect more products to continue evolving to cater to the European market and beyond.”

How the market develops in the future depends on consumer confidence. “I expect reducing antibiotics use is reason enough to scale up alternative products in Europe and America,” says Van Wolfswinkel. “I wouldn’t be surprised if a more robust, slower growing chicken developed on American soil as well.”

Different countries, different rules

The relatively small organic market is covered by separate regulations, but rules differ a lot between individual countries and certifications (Table 1). Production in France was 7,000 tonnes per year and the organic market has shown no major growth. Label Rouge is the alternative market leader in France, with approximately 100 million 81-day chickens per year and 200 different labels of rouge poultry products in France alone. In France, approximately 50 million Certifié chickens are produced on a yearly basis. They were first introduced by ‘Duc’ and are kept indoors for 56 days with 18 chicks per square metre. The Free Range chicken is mainly used in the United Kingdom and comes in a 56-day and a 81-day version, the latter being similar to Label Rouge in France. Total Freedom Free Range is hardly seen.
According to Van Boekholt’s estimates, the UK and Ireland count an approximate total of one million slow(er) growing chickens per week in all systems, including organic, 81-day free range, 56-day free range and Freedom Food Indoor, with a strong focus on 56-day free range and Freedom Food Indoor. This comprises 6 to 7% of the total UK/Irish market. In the Netherlands, a total of 60 to 70% of the meat sold in supermarkets will soon be a 56-day chicken grown indoors in a covered ranging area (Beter Leven 1 star) or a Chicken of Tomorrow, both slower growing products. In most other European countries, alternative products are still negligible.

Join 31,000+ subscribers

Subscribe to our newsletter to stay updated about all the need-to-know content in the poultry sector, three times a week.
Marleen Teuling Correspondent