Attendees at the Merial Avian Forum, held in Paris in late April, were party to latest thinking on disease control, predictions for the evolution of the global market for poultry meat, and how companies acting in that market have changed and will have to continue to change.

The technology and practices applied to keeping poultry flocks healthy is changing, allowing producers to operate more efficiently and better serve the market. However, alongside these developments, market demands are also changing.

The packed program included workshops for the 500 delegates, and one of these, led by Dr. Kate Barger, global director of animal welfare at Cobb-Vantrass, focused on animal welfare, the difficulties faced in ensuring welfare and some of the welfare challenges on the horizon.

Welfare moving up the agenda

While animal welfare is not a new concept for the poultry industry, in recent years, due to social, political and societal pressures, it has become a more prominent focus within poultry and global food companies. This has been, in part, driven by pressure from animal advocacy groups, retailers and the general public who are now more concerned about the food origin and animal treatment.

“We will not stop the animal welfare movement or its focus, but we can be proactive. We need to contribute to the debate,” Barger said.

Considerations of broiler welfare should start in the hatchery, she continued, and be present through transport, handling, care on farm, and at slaughter. The needs of a bird change through its life and so expectations and standards need to change accordingly.

What is welfare?

What is welfare, how should it be measured, and which standards, codes of practice or legislative requirements should be followed?

These are questions being asked around the world, and there are no uniform answers that can be applied across all countries or production systems.

Ultimately, farmers, technical staff and the companies that manage broilers are responsible for compliance with welfare expectations. It is they who should be involved in welfare discussions and the development, or review, of guidelines to ensure that the result is a positive and realistic expectation for measuring animal welfare.

Challenges on the horizon

To meet expectations and comply with standards, poultry producers will have to use more technology and improved management methods. Innovative approaches must be evaluated for the care and handling of birds, and a better understanding of physical attributes and behavior developed.

Alongside this, the poultry industry must evaluate how current practices are being employed to produce a net welfare benefit – and how they may be perceived by others as a welfare concern. Such self-evaluation may lead to change, but the resulting effect should be a more resilient industry better able to address concerns.

And it should not be forgotten that ever more people no longer see how food is produced.

“There is an increase in population growth and an increase in demand for chicken. There is an increase in the percentage of the population that does not farm, and they understand less about the origin of food,” Barger said.

There also needs to be a partnership with academic experts, institutes and consumers to discuss welfare. The result should help determine the expectations for broiler production, and what genuine benefits standards will bring to a broiler’s life, as well as how compliance should be measured.

Newcastle disease

Professor Francisco Perozo of the University of Zulia, Venezuela, posed the question, “How much of a problem is Newcastle disease worldwide?”

For those countries where the disease is endemic, Newcastle disease is costly. There are the costs of vaccination and biosecurity, as well as those associated with culling. But even if a country is free from the disease, if itis present in a neighboring country there is still risk.

Newcastle disease is on the list of mandatory reporting for the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE), but reporting is always as instructive as it could be, Perozo said.

The latest information for 2014 suggests that, over the first quarter of the year, there were only two outbreaks of Newcastle disease – one in Africa and one in South East Asia. But reference to a map detailing outbreaks of the disease in 2013 would reveal that large parts of the world are stilling dealing with it.

An example would be Mexico, which showed as infected in 2012, but in 2013 there were no reported outbreaks. Does this mean that the disease in under control? In Mexico, you still have to vaccinate three or four times to stop a flock from becoming infected.

“Just because you do not have an outbreak, does that mean that you are disease free?” Perozo said.

The question of whether there are variant Newcastle disease strains was raised and the answer given was no. There are, however, different genotypes. The professor then considered whether homologous genotype vaccines protect better than heterologous genotype vaccines, concluding that, if applied properly, a vaccine based on genotype 2 will protect against any virus in the field.

However, he continued, there are no magic bullets for Newcastle disease.

Better safe than sorry

“You have to be really sure you are dealing with Newcastle disease. For that you need to do virus isolation. Most people rely on ‘I know that is Newcastle disease because I have seen it before.’ No, you need to do virus isolation,” he said.

Another factor in controlling the disease is to reduce the challenge. If the virus is not circulating on a farm, you cannot have an outbreak. Biosecurity was nothing more than what each of the assembled delegates knew what they should do, and what was feasible, he said.

“If you know what should be done, let’s try to do it!”

The other important factor raised was to diminish susceptibility, and this can be achieved through vaccination and keeping the immune system healthy. If a bird has a healthy immune system, it will be better able to respond to a vaccination program, whatever it may be. But it is not simply the case that you need to vaccinate - you need proper management. Proper management will avoid stress, and preventing stress will avoid cortisol, which leads to immune suppression.

Surveillance and biosecurity for Newcastle disease must be seen as non-negotiable, while vaccination programs need to be varied depending on prevalence, stringency and the management capabilities of each area.

“Vaccination programs need to be developed for each company - you cannot apply to a whole country or a region - and whatever you do, pay attention to the details.”