More than ever the poultry industry is being tested by a number of challenges that could potentially collapse chicken farming as a whole.

James Mottershead’s family has been in the chicken farming business for two decades, but nothing compares with the current situation. “Absolutely dire,” is his summary.

Based in Shropshire and operating from six vast sheds that churn out 1.3m chickens a year, the business has been hit by a cocktail of pressures. Soaring costs of feed, energy and packaging outstrip the price many farmers are paid for their birds. The threat of avian flu is ever-present. Cheaper imports and the rise of meat-free alternatives have added another wave of pressure.

Versatile and relatively affordable, chicken is the UK’s most popular meat, with the level of consumption far outstripping beef, lamb or pork. But these challenges are pushing many domestic producers to reduce the size of their flocks, while others weigh up whether to continue at all.

Mottershead’s family has been producing broiler chickens – young birds grown for meat – since expanding beyond arable and sheep farming in 2001.
The latest batch of 205,000 chickens is now almost fully grown, destined for the shelves of the nation’s largest supermarkets and smaller grocery stores in just over a week’s time.

Many producers are in a “really, really terrible position” and are making a loss on each bird, says Mottershead, who as chair of the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) poultry board represents many of England and Wales’s chicken and turkey farmers.

“It’s getting to the stage where these producers will have no option but to shut the doors and stop producing chickens until things like energy start getting back into a better position and they’re not locked into a contract, with high energy costs,” he says. “Once you are locked into a contract you have to honour it.”

He and his fellow producers are being paid more for their birds than before, but he says the “liveweight” price is linked to the cost of feed, and does not take higher energy bills into account. It has risen from about 95p a kilogram before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 to about £1.05/kg currently, an 11% increase. This comes at a time when the price of feed – which accounts for almost three-quarters of the input costs for poultry production – has risen by between 20% and 30% over the past two years and energy costs a kilowatt have increased five fold.

While some of the government’s bird flu restrictions have been lifted recently, allowing free range poultry and other birds to return outside, many other pressures have not eased up.

The price of animal feed shot up, along with energy bills, after Russia’s invasion, and there is little sign of these costs coming back down. Chicken producers have few options for cutting their energy costs: poultry sheds have to be lit and heated, and also ventilated using large fans, to keep the birds cool and ensure they have oxygen.

Farmers feel forgotten by the government’s energy intensive industries exemption scheme, which subsidises bills for eligible manufacturers.
“Poultry is out on its own,” says Mottershead. “A processing factory can get relief on its electric bills because it’s deemed as high energy usage, but a poultry farm uses equally high levels of energy. Bear in mind these farms all have modern, low-energy equipment.”

On top of eye-watering bills, rising interest rates have piled further pressure on producers with mortgages or those who borrowed to invest in facilities and equipment. “British poultry is at breaking point,” warns the British Poultry Council. “The drive to keep food affordable under exceptional market conditions where the cost of production is not being returned through the marketplace is rendering poultry meat businesses unviable,” says the industry body’s chief executive Richard Griffiths.

The UK is now about two-thirds self-sufficient in poultry, according to the NFU. Britain is a net importer of white poultry meat, particularly shoppers’ favourite breast fillets, and has been hunting for overseas markets to export the dark meat – including thighs and drumsticks – and offal.

However, British diners’ appetite for chicken is not expected to diminish anytime soon, and the industry fears cheaper imports could fill the gaps on supermarket shelves.

Trade figures highlight a small but significant increase in the amount of European poultry brought into Britain last year. The EU exported 742,000 tonnes of poultry meat to the UK in 2022, a 2.3% rise on a year earlier, according to European Commission figures, making Britain the bloc’s top export destination. Meanwhile, poultry exports from the UK to the EU tumbled by almost 25% last year, falling to just over 208,000 tonnes, down from nearly 275,000 tonnes in 2021.

British farming has warned of the dangers of relying on imports, with the NFU blaming recent salad shortages on the UK’s winter reliance on imported fruit and vegetables, which left it particularly exposed to “shock weather events”.

Mottershead is calling on the government to bring together the poultry supply chain to discuss sharing the burden placed on farmers. “We are not market setters; we are price takers,” he says. “The market dictates the price the consumer has to pay.”

Mottershead adds: “Ministers need to act and bring processors and retailers into a room to work out what has happened in the broiler sector, and if money has been passed down, or where it has been held up.
“We need retailers to start to demonstrate that they value the British poultry industry and will pay a sustainable price for those birds.”

This means consumers would have to accept paying more for food, a difficult ask during a cost of living crisis and annual food price inflation running at almost 20%.

Beyond all these challenges, there may be one more problem facing poultry producers: the meat-free products hoping to steal chicken’s crown as the nation’s favourite protein.

Tindle, which calls itself “chicken made from plants”, has just launched its breaded meat substitutes at 350 Morrisons stores, after a successful Veganuary trial. Made from wheat and soy protein, as well as coconut oil, it contains just nine ingredients including sunflower oil and natural flavours and no genetically modified organisms (GMOs), according to its maker, the Singapore-based food tech firm Next Gen Foods.

Tindle products – including wings, nuggets, and chicken popcorn – will be available for a year at hospitality venues, after which the company’s co-founders, Timo Recker and Andre Menezes, will seek a wider UK audience.

“Anywhere chicken is, Tindle has to be,” says Recker at the London launch of the retail range, where waiters pass with trays of wraps, burgers and katsu curry. “We need to disrupt chicken,” says the 37-year-old entrepreneur, adding that it is the biggest meat category, the fastest growing and people of most religions can eat it.

Recker had expected to take over running his family’s German meat-processing business, specialising in foods such as schnitzel, but has instead pursued a career in developing meat substitutes.

Believing such substitutes to be an environmentally friendly alternative, Tindle says it is targeting meat eaters and diners open to trying new things. It says its products contain similar protein levels to chicken, but at a cost: between £3 and £4 for a packet of two servings, although the company says the price will come down over time.

“It’s actually quite nice and has got that meaty texture,” says Chris Sheen, 33, trying a plate of nuggets for the first time at the launch. “I can imagine myself in Soho at 3am happily eating this.”

“I eat meat, but this really could have fooled me,” says Cui Huang, 27. “The texture is right and doesn’t feel strange like some other faux chicken brands.”

Original source: https://www.theguardian.com