Counting chickens

Posted on 15 Jan 2008 by The Manufacturer

For Cobb, a world leader in pedigree broiler breeding, compartmentalisation offers a credible way forward in a fast-changing world. Euan Meldrum speaks to Bernie Sheehan

Consumers are increasingly turning to ready meals and fast foods, which means the market for chicken breast meat is growing quickly.

“To meet this demand, chickens are increasingly being sold not as whole broilers but to be deboned, for portioning in premium value-added products,” explained Euan Meldrum, marketing manager at Cobb Europe. “The market for large broilers, particularly in France and Italy, is expanding. That’s one of the reasons why we had the European launch of our new product, the Cobb 700, at the Fieravicola exhibition in Forli, Italy, in September.”

With the whole-bird market also segmenting into free range, organic and other upmarket niches, there is a growing demand for broilers that will grow to heavier weights and achieve a high meat yield, particularly breast meat, for the most valuable ‘whole muscle’ products. Processors are also demanding higher product uniformity to optimise cutting and portioning.

“Until now the Cobb 500 has been and remains our leading broiler. The breed was developed in the UK in the 1970s, and has become the standard product in markets around the world. Although the Cobb 500 will continue to be our mainline product, the decision was made several years ago to develop different products for different sectors. The Cobb 700 meets the demand for taking meat off the bone for added-value products, which is the most rapidly-expanding sector in the poultry industry.”

The Cobb 700 broiler also maintains the breed’s reputation for low feed conversion and low production cost – particularly vital attributes in an era of unprecedented feed price rises. The Cobb 700’s simultaneous launch in South America as well as Europe sets new standards for high yield in the industry, where the ratio of the feed required to produce a kilogram or pound of breast meat is becoming the critical factor in profitably supplying the further processing market.

The launch follows more than 10 years of extensive research, testing and commercial evaluation. Sophisticated ultrasound technology, first used by Cobb almost 30 years ago, was used to confirm meat yields and evaluate the processing qualities of broilers. Advances in genetics and management helped Cobb achieve its yield targets while maintaining the company’s hallmarks of feed conversion, cost and low mortality.

Cobb Europe is one of four divisions within Cobb Vantress, supplying Cobb broiler breeding stock for the global market, and with an annual revenue of around $350 million (£175 million). Cobb Vantress is wholly owned by Tyson Foods – the world’s largest supplier of chicken, beef and pork products.

Cobb Europe’s regional offices in the UK are responsible for product supply as well as business and technical support to customers across Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA). The company’s regional headquarters relocated from the Netherlands to Colchester, Essex – close to its UK production facilities – last year.

“We have a grandparent hatchery in Norfolk and farms throughout East Anglia. We also take production from Spain, the Netherlands and Ireland,” said Meldrum. “Bringing the management team closer to our production base for grandparent stock has made us more efficient. From our hatcheries in the UK and the Netherlands, we can truck chicks to London, Amsterdam and Frankfurt, which means we can fly breeding stock to far-flung countries around the world. We’re also continuing to deliver chicks direct to western European customers by truck.”

The UK is one of Cobb’s key great-grandparent production centres, which are strategically placed around the world to supply grandparent breeding stock to a network of franchise distributors which produce the parent stock for sale in their area. There are 13 distributors (25 per cent of the total) in the EMEA region, with Cobb Germany, for instance, responsible for 18 countries across central and eastern Europe.

Production planning is crucial. Cobb has developed a global supply strategy so that if there is an unexpected surge in demand in Europe it can potentially be supplied from the USA or South America. Similarly, Cobb Europe can be called on to help meet orders in other parts of the world. The recent avian influenza (AI) outbreak shows the importance of implementing standards between trading partners to ensure business as usual during outbreaks.

Cobb is leading the industry in adopting the concept of ‘compartmentalisation’. This offers the opportunity to continue trading from free compartments during periods of disease outbreak in a country or zone, by adhering to strict biocontainment procedures, record keeping and a trading partner agreement. A compartment is defined by the World Organisation for Animal Health as “one or more establishments under a common biosecurity management system, containing an animal subpopulation with a distinct health status with respect to a specific disease or specific diseases for which required surveillance, control and biosecurity measures have been applied for the purpose of international trade.”

In practice, it means that Cobb – together with Defra in the UK, its customer in a particular (non-EU) country and that country’s equivalent of Defra – agrees on the conditions required for an export health certificate and puts the necessary blood testing and other procedures in place.

“Although our business is not yet securely compartmentalised within that process, we’re aiming for a consensus worldwide and to break down barriers to global supply,” said Meldrum. “Our strategy going forward is to make sure that our standard operating procedures are robust so that we can react even quicker next time there is an outbreak of AI. We have to adapt to the reality. We’re tackling it by ‘compartmentalisation’ and by having better government ties in the UK and overseas. We need to keep the dialogue open. In very black and white terms, it’s the difference between a shipment and no shipment.”