Poultry has many benefits for the consumer as a low-fat, high-protein food that is relatively simple to prepare and ideal for a wide variety of recipes. For the poultry processor there are also many opportunities for added value. However, there have been recent concerns over the welfare of intensively farmed poultry, bacterial contamination and antibiotic-resistant bacteria passing onto humans.

So how can producers turn these challenges into opportunities to produce branded poultry products that both improve profits and ensure the sustainability of the industry? The European Union has already banned the use of antibiotic growth promoters and in the US "antibiotic-free" is sold at a premium and even demanded for certain restaurant brands. Many countries have shown that Salmonella control can be highly successful. The number of birds grown in higher welfare or outdoor systems is increasing and this gives producers a chance to differentiate their products. A challenge is to improve the marketing of poultry products to meet the needs of the health and welfare conscious customer.

Antibiotic use and resistance  

The use of antimicrobial growth promoters was banned January 2006 in the EU and is no longer acceptable to many retailers worldwide. Necrotic enteritis may be a challenge without in-feed antibiotics, and antibiotic alternatives for control of necrotic enteritis, which is often associated with coccidiosis, have focused largely on nutrition, management and vaccination. Coccidiosis can result in production losses due to the higher feed conversion rate, slower growth and increased mortality. Parasite resistance to coccidiostats and consumer concerns necessitate further alternative treatments and control measures.

Many commercial broiler producers have shown that they can successfully raise birds without antibiotics. Various probiotics, prebiotics, enzymes and nutritional modifications are used to optimize intestinal health. For example, a study has shown similar performance in broiler birds fed antibiotics to birds fed antibiotic-free diets containing either mannan-oligosaccharides (MOS) or lignin. Broilers fed MOS or lignin had increased populations of lactobacilli and bifidobacteria and fewer E. coli with improved intestinal function, compared to antibiotic-supplemented birds.

There is also evidence that MOS have the potential to reduce transfer of plasmid-linked antimicrobial resistance (curing) and this mechanism may be further explored to decrease resistance in bacteria. Abolishing routine use of antibiotics in feed may have direct benefits for the producer such as improving clinical treatment efficacy of antibiotics and lower drug expenditure. Consumers are willing to pay a higher price to obtain meat from antibiotic-free broilers and this feature is a strong selling point of a branded chicken product.

Bacterial hazards  

Good internal and external biosecurity measures are key components of control programs that prevent the introduction of pathogens onto the farm or reduce infection pressure. The poultry production sector has successfully demonstrated that, with an integrated farm to fork approach, reduction of pathogens, such as Salmonella in poultry meat, is possible.

A strategy to minimize enteric pathogens is to optimize the gut microflora and enhance the immune system and this may start with in-ovo feeding. Organic acids, short and medium chain fatty acids, probiotics, competitive exclusion cultures, prebiotics and certain specific carbohydrates, such as MOS, egg proteins, essential oils and bacteriophages, and nutrient composition modulation of diet have been used to improve gut function as well as potentially reduce Salmonella levels. With the successful reduction in Salmonella many producers are now turning their focus to Campylobacter control. Biosecurity measures, vaccination and bacteriocin treatment are strategies with the potential to reduce Campylobacter in broilers. Many of these control measures will result in an overall higher level of productivity.

Consumers seek chicken meat products that are safe to handle and consume, and active measures to fight these bacterial hazards are cost-effective in reducing disease burden in the flocks as well as providing the consumers the guarantees they are seeking.

Animal welfare  

The welfare of broilers should be targeted in branded chicken meat production. Although a high stocking density has long been recognized as a key welfare issue, environmental factors may have more impact on welfare than stocking density itself. Outdoor and free-range systems have also become increasingly popular and cater to the consumers that care about the welfare of animals.

In the EU, broilers must have at least 6 hours of darkness per 24-hour period. Studies have indicated that this welfare rule does not significantly influence feed intake or growth for photoperiods exceeding 6 hours, but significant depressions in feed intake and growth have been found for photoperiods shorter than 6 hours. Therefore, EU welfare regulations may be profitable. Furthermore, providing more dark hours may reduce Salmonella on the chicken carcasses. A high daytime light may further improve welfare by increasing uninterrupted resting behavior during the dark phase and decrease ulcerative footpad lesions and eye size.

Leg disorders in broilers are largely a consequence of the growth rate of modern day chickens. The challenge is that altering management practices to reduce locomotion problems may lead to reduced production.

Foot health has gained increasing importance due to chicken paw sales to the Asian markets. Foot pad dermatitis is highly correlated with litter quality, which is affected by type, depth and moisture content of the litter, ventilation, stocking density, bird behavior, diet, enzyme supplementation and drinking systems. A study of the combined effects of lower stocking density, more litter material and a longer photoperiod, showed improved broiler welfare, as well as faster growth, without clear effects on meat quality.

Animal welfare is a key issue to target in a branded meat program, and the overall trend is that most measures to improve broiler welfare will not negatively impact productivity and will improve the status the final product.

The consumer  

Finally, consumer attitudes towards various production practices are key targets in the branding of poultry meat. Working towards better consumer understanding can directly influence the acceptance of technologies and management practices.

The future branded meat is farm to fork  

Overall there are ample opportunities for high quality branded poultry meat. The final product quality and appearance will not be sufficient in the branded chicken meat programs of the future. Today’s health conscience and environmentally aware consumer wants healthy, animal welfare conscious and environmentally friendly production, which does not use antibiotics for growth promotion or disease prevention.

As proactive producers continue to optimize production systems to fulfill chicken welfare requirements, improve biosecurity and decrease routine antibiotic use, they may find that productivity will increase and disease hazards will decrease, as well as having produced an added value commodity.