Quail meat – an undiscovered alternative

01-02-2009 | | |
Quail meat – an undiscovered alternative

In the poultry world, quail meat production is negligible when compared to broilers. In addition, the global profile of production is quite different from the one of its larger relative (except for China). Besides, the sector does not seem to be experiencing any substantial and sustained growth, despite attractive marketing features of the meat. Yet quail meat is an interesting niche business.

By Dr Rogério G. T. da Cunha, Brazil

Quail eggs are more widely known, and more popular, than quail meat. Although this might not be true for all countries, the fact remains that quail meat is quite far from being a regularly consumed product. It is better seen and regarded as an exquisite food, a delicacy, or something for special occasions. France, Spain, Italy, China and the US are the largest producers, with other countries far behind. However, some initiatives to foster production were launched in places as different as India, Australia and Canada. These regions are either trying to tap into some local advantages in production, or have an eye on a specific export market.

Market profile

According to data provided by Dr Lin Qilu from Nanjing Agriculture University, China would be, once again, the largest meat producer. He estimates that the country has around 80 million quail housed exclusively for that purpose. Figures for total meat production are not available though. However, Dr Qilu states that they are fed for 4 weeks before being slaughtered at a weight of 200g. Using an approximation of 1,040 to 1,360 million birds being slaughtered per year (13-17 cycles/year), and a 70% carcass yield, we arrive at a crude estimate between 146,000 and 190,000 tonnes being produced per year. In any case, their production is bound to be much higher than the next player (Figure 1).

Nonetheless, even these numbers might be a gross underestimation, given that laying quails might be consumed after their productive period. Thus, if we add 315-350 million layer quails a year (based on a national figure of 270-300 million layers and a 10 month-productive period), we might change the above figures quite substantially.  For the future, as in the case of eggs, he sees perspectives for increase, since the government supports quail production.

Next comes Spain, which in 2004 produced an estimated 9,300 tonnes of quail meat (from Japanese quail breeds, according to Castelló, 2005). To put things into perspective, this represents less than 5% of the author’s estimated figures for the production of special kinds of the country’s poultry meat (and less than 1% of common broiler production). The author explains that Spain has a highly concentrated production structure, with 5 companies dominating the scene. The larger one answers for 70% of production and has a vertical integration structure. On the other hand, the next player (responsible for another 15%) operates in a cooperative integration scheme. Castelló reports that production is concentrated in the Lleida and Huesca provinces. The country exports much more than it imports, and is by far France’s main trading partner – in both directions. Over the past few years, exports fluctuated around 2,000 tonnes. However, 2007 witnessed a sudden jump to 3,782 tonnes, and Austria represented an additional important importer. Imports were quite small, but increased over the past two years, reaching 419 tonnes in 2007.

Limited exports

France has similar values, and data from 2006 points to production of 8,197 tonnes, which is a bit below 2005 figures (8,938 t). Over the past few years the number of animals housed fluctuated around 9 million birds. However, from 2002 onwards there was a sharp decline, reaching a low of 5.9 million birds in 2005, recovering to nearly 7.5 million quails in 2006 (recall that these figures may be imprecise indicators, given the short life span of the production birds). Production is spread over several regions of the country, but roughly a third comes from the Pays de la Loire.

According to the French Customs, the country also exports more than it imports (1644 and 1504 tonnes – 2007 figures), but the largest portion of the trade is restricted to Europe. Belgium and Germany are the main importers of French quail, and Spain is the major exporter to the country.

Next comes Italy, where official data from the past 6 years indicates that slaughtering figures remained between 20 and 24 million birds (between 3,300 and 3,600 tonnes carcass weight). However, Prof Adele Meluzzi from the Italian branch of WPSA said that estimates are around 28.5 million birds slaughtered per year. She said exports are about 600-650 tonnes per year.

The following country in production figures is the US. In their 2002 Census of Agriculture, 1,907 farms reported having sold just over 19.1 million quails. Assuming a weight range of 200-300g, and a 70% carcass yield, this would represent between 2,674 and 4,011 tonnes. Georgia is the largest producer, followed by North Carolina, Texas and Alabama. In addition, the country also imports quail meat, with the main supplier being Canada.
Going back to the Mediterranean, Portugal has a modest production. During the past seven years slaughtering figures varied from 8-13 million birds, and carcass weight between 960 and 1,600 tonnes.

Looking to the future

According to a report by the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation (RIRDC, Australia), in 2001-2002 the country slaughtered 6.5 million quails (out of 17 million game birds). Similar to the Spanish situation, a single company located in New South Wales answered for 75% of the quail production. Australia’s supply capabilities to Asia are deemed to be good by RIRDC, and they regard France and China as the main competitors. The first holding onto tradition on game/exotic animals and the second because it is a supplier of lower-quality (but price-competitive) quails. All in all, the bird was included in their plans, but no recent data was found to see where it went to.

The next promising actor is (or was) Canada. There, a similar initiative by the University of British Columbia (partially funded by a governmental body) tracked the status and perspectives of BC on game birds. That state alone was producing 2 million quails per year around 2000 through a single producer. In that year, the country slaughtered about 10.5 million game birds, and a “sizeable” proportion of it was said to be from quails. A substantial portion of such production goes to the US, particularly California. In 2007 alone, Canada
exported 628 tonnes of quail to the US. The report foresaw a growth perspective between 50 and 60% up to 2007 for BC. Although there is no recent data to see how much production was reached, the forecasts were not confirmed, according to Dr Cheng, responsible for the report. She lists two unforeseen reasons for this – the avian influenza outbreak of 2004, which negatively impacted their production and export, and the more recent exchange rate between the US and the Canadian dollar, which further hurt exports.

India is another possible player-to-be, and the government is giving incentives for quail production, given some of the advantages it presents (smaller costs, less area and requirements needed, fast growth cycle and returns, etc.).

Then we have Brazil, which can always hold the promise to be a significant competitor whenever it comes to poultry. Nonetheless, the meat sector is still in its baby years. Only one company (the giant Perdigão) has ventured into the commercial business. In 2007, the company processed 1,200 tonnes of quails, but it has been experiencing growth of about 10% per year. The majority of the production supplies the domestic market. Exports go mostly to the Middle East. Egypt is another country with similar figures. In this instance we should rather say company, since the data is restricted to a single company, Moussa Quail Farm, which claims to slaughter 6 million quails per year.

Where to from here?

When one looks at the restricted time series data, one thing stands out – the sector is walking sideways. In three out of four European producers, the situation seems stagnated, even with some decrease. Spain seems to be experiencing some moderate growth and Castelló (2005) mentions that consumption could rise gradually. Other countries were betting on the bird (Australia, Canada, and India), but there was no data to see where the efforts led to. Brazil’s production is said to be increasing, but figures are still timid. China’s data is hard to interpret in the absence of official statistical time series.

All in all, this scenario is surprising, given the advantageous nutritional and sensory properties of their meat. Thus, one would expect more interest from entrepreneurs and governments alike, and a more vigorous sector, which does not seem to be the case. Therefore, those interested in venturing into quail production would benefit a great deal from a detailed market study and campaign, both to find the right niche for this bird, and then to explore it.

Quail meat – nearly a chicken, but better
When it comes to composition, quail meat has some interesting properties, which might aid in its marketing. In terms of its basic composition, it is quite similar to broiler meat. Accordingly, it has a high protein content and a relatively low fat content (when skin is taken out, the figures for fat drop around 60% for quails and 80% for broilers, but only values for raw meat were available). In terms of lipids, it has slightly more undesired saturated fats. However, it also has a higher content of the good polyunsaturated fatty acids. Looking at the minerals, we can see it is a significant source of phosphorus, iron and copper, while providing reasonable amounts of zinc and selenium. Vitamin-wise, it has high niacin (vitamin B3) and pyridoxine (vitamin B6) content. So, it has either the same or substantially higher amounts of minerals and vitamins when compared to broilers.
In terms of sensory properties, Murakami and co-workers (2007) revised some papers and conducted their own experiments on the issue. Overall, quail meat has good acceptance by the consumer, based on quite positive sensory perception. Surprisingly, they found even higher ratings (in their category “taste”) for laying quails (either discarded after the laying period or males that were wrongly sexed). In the case of the older birds, this is totally unexpected. After all, they show higher shearing forces and have less water retention capacity. This good surprise makes the use of layer breeds for meat consumption in the cases above a viable and interesting solution for the egg producer.

 World Poultry Vol. 25 No. 2