United Kingdom (U.K.) poultrymeat consumption now stands at just over 1.6 million tonnes (mt) per annum, almost exactly the same as in 1997, according to figures published by Poultry World for 2007. The 117,000t drop from 1.735 mt (2006) to 1.618 mt (2007) represented a hefty 7 percent fall.

Effects on national production were felt most severely in the turkey sector, where output fell 30,000t, representing a 16.3 percent slump. Ducks and geese combined were not far behind with a 15.6 percent fall.  The broiler sector came off relatively lightly, registering a fall of 1.4 percent (17,000 t). Combined duck and geese production was down 7,000t. Production of old hens fell by 4,000t (7.6 percent). This adds up to a total fall in domestic output of 57,000t, roughly 50 percent of the drop in consumption. The other half of the 117,000t fall in consumption was absorbed by a sharp rise in exports. Import share of the U.K. poultrymeat market at 27.8 percent was slightly up on the 26 percent in 2006. Production of U.K. poultrymeat (all types) in 2007 was actually lower than 10 years previously (Table 1).

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Day-old chick placings for the first half of 2008 suggest the decline in U.K. broiler output will continue, says Poultry World. The rolling 12-month total of chick placings was down 2.2 percent through June 2008, with broiler parent placings showing the same fall. One crumb of comfort, said the report, was that the fall in turkey numbers appeared to have flattened out with the 12-month total of 16.2m virtually the same as one year before.

Significant downturn in consumption of turkey from 2006 to 2007 is explainable and understandable. Two H5N1 HPAI outbreaks occurred in U.K. poultry during 2007 and both affected turkeys, exclusively in the first and almost entirely in the second. The first outbreak in February 2007 occurred at a Bernard Matthews turkey farm involving the U.K.'s biggest and highest profile turkey producer and processor. The outbreak clearly affected sales of turkey, but industry watchers think more damage was done, especially to Bernard Matthews brand products by the side issue of turkey imports. The infection is thought to have arrived on imported partly processed turkey meat from Hungary. For years, U.K. consumers had been led to believe that all Bernard Matthews turkey was home-grown so there was a backlash when they found this was not so.

The second outbreak was also associated with a high profile company, occurring at farms belonging to Redgrave Poultry, a subsidiary company of Gressingham Foods. This company is the producer of the world famous "Gressingham Duck," although it was free-range premium turkeys destined for the Christmas dinner table that bore the brunt of bird flu. This outbreak could not have occurred at a worse time in the run-up to the crucial Christmas marketing period. Figures released the following year showed that sales had clearly been hit.

Turkey consumption and production in the U.K. has fallen year on year since 1997 and the decline has accelerated since 2004 (Table 2). It appears these recent bouts of bird flu just helped it on its way. Since 1997, turkey meat consumption (‘000 tonnes) has fallen by 47.9 percent and production by 47.6 percent.

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Why broiler consumption should have fallen and is apparently still falling is not so easy to explain, and certainly not due to any general consumer aversion to poultry due to avian influenza. One other factor could be underlying effects of the unprecedented media campaign conducted by some high profile TV chefs, bird welfare organisations, and "green groups" over alleged poor conditions and treatment suffered by birds in intensive boiler production systems and conventional cage egg production units. TV programme makers do not spare viewers who are subjected to intense and controversial programme material including gassing of male chicks in the studio to support allegations of cruelty. All this has been done to increase the purchase of free range and organic poultry (higher welfare birds), but some industry watchers have always maintained this would eventually affect overall consumption of poultry products.

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These figures are particularly disappointing for the U.K. poultry industry, which has done everything possible to promote poultry as the most healthy meat option with high adaptability and versatility for convenient foods in today’s dynamic market. Suspicions remain that too much attention is being given to poultry and the way it is produced and processed, by environmental, bird welfare, and "politically correct" nutrition groups. The net result could be over-exposure, causing general consumer drift away from the poultry in spite of its obvious nutritional advantages and generally high standards of bird welfare, irrespective of production system.