Category Archives: Australian made

Why didn’t the chicken cross the road?

…or the oceans, in the case of chicken meat available to Australian consumers.

Consumers often associate the beef and lamb that they buy as having been grown in Australia, but are not so confident about the origin of their chicken meat.

Well, good news! Almost all chicken meat available for you to buy in Australia is grown domestically!

To protect Australian agriculture and consumers from diseases of poultry, including those that can also infect wild birds, raw chicken meat from all other countries can only be imported under strict protocols. To date poultry producers in other countries have been unable to meet these requirements. The exception to this is chicken grown in New Zealand, which has a similar favourable disease status to Australia.

Not only do these restrictions on importation protect our local poultry flocks and wild birds, they also protect Australians from a range of public health risks that are more prevalent in some other countries.

Only some highly processed, fully retorted or cooked in-packaging chicken meat products can currently be imported. The high temperatures and prolonged cooking used to treat these products effectively sterilizes them. These foods – which include products such as canned chicken and some soups – account for only a small amount (less than 1%) of the chicken consumed in Australia.

While no raw chicken meat is able to cross any ocean, a small amount of chicken meat is imported from New Zealand – but that doesn’t count, because that’s only crossing a sea!

So consumers can be assured that, aside from a minuscule quantity of product from New Zealand, all fresh and frozen raw chicken meat and virtually all further processed and cooked chicken products that are offered for sale in Australia have been produced in Australia (and I mean the chickens have been grown on Australian farms, and processed in Australian processing plants, to Australian standards).

What about the future?

Australia’s tight biosecurity arrangements and protocols will hopefully continue to ensure that Australian consumers and our chicken flocks are protected from the risks of imported chicken meat, but there are always threats that these arrangements will be undermined and both the industry and consumers need to be vigilant.

Think I’m exaggerating these risks? Well consider the impacts of White Spot disease, a highly contagious viral disease of crustaceans including prawns, crabs, yabbies and lobsters that was introduced into Australia in imported prawns last year. Following its discovery on Queensland prawn farms back in November 2016 the disease has had a devastating impact on Queensland’s $87 million farmed prawn industry. Fortunately, white spot disease only affects crustaceans; it does not pose a threat to human health or food safety. But another example shows that Australian consumers can also be exposed to food safety risks through imports. Remember the frozen berries recalls in February 2015, then again in June 2017? These stemmed from imported frozen berries which were linked to hepatitis A cases in Australia.

We know that Australians want to know more about the origin of the food they’re consuming. The good news for those concerned that their chicken meat has been grown and produced in Australia to Australia’s high standards of food safety and animal welfare, is that from 1 July 2018, Australia’s new country of origin labelling standards will come into force and will require most foods (including all chicken products) to be labelled to indicate where they came from. To understand the new laws and what the labels means, and to learn how to recognise your chicken has been produced in Australia, see http://www.foodlabels.industry.gov.au/.

In the meantime, continue to enjoy your homegrown Aussie chicken, safe in the knowledge that it has been produced here in Australia, by Australian farmers, and to the highest standards.

The Chicken Family Tree

In 2016, Australian chicken farms will produce over 590 million meat chickens. But where do they come from?

It may be obvious, but it’s something most people don’t think about – every meat chicken has a set of parents, and those parents have their own parents, and so on up the line. But where are these parents, grandparents and great grandparents? Where are they kept and what do they look like? And how does the whole chicken breeding and multiplication process work?

This is the story of the Australian meat chicken’s family tree…and it starts, not here in Australia, but overseas in the nucleus breeding operations of the world’s two largest poultry genetics companies.

Our chicken genetics come from overseas

Almost all of Australia’s meat chickens are derived from two large international poultry genetics companies – Aviagen and Cobb – and the specific hybrid breeds used here (referred to as ‘Ross’ and ‘Cobb’) are pretty much the same as are used right around the world. Because of the size of their breeding operations, and therefore the numbers of birds and flocks they can maintain and are therefore available to select from, these genetics companies have powerful selective breeding programs and are able to make significant improvements to the genetic potential of their breeds at each generation. We call the genetic flocks they maintain the ‘nucleus’ breeding flocks – and it’s all achieved using conventional selective breeding techniques.

In a previous blog (see selective breeding), I described how selective breeding works, why it’s done, and what attributes the breeding companies select for.

How do we get these genetics into Australia?

New genetic lines of meat chickens developed by the international breeding companies are imported, under strict quarantine, as fertile eggs. Typically, there might be, say, 12,000 fertile eggs in a single importation, and 2 – 3 new importations each year for each major breed. These fertile eggs are hatched out in quarantine stations in Australia before being released to breeder farms. We refer to this generation as the Great Grandparents (GGPs) of the meat chickens that are for eating. In actuality, at any importation there are a variety of different lines introduced. It’s a little complicated to explain, but this is done to provide for optimal attributes in the male and female lines of later generations, and to capture hybrid vigour in later generations. A little more on that later.

And what breeding happens in Australia?

The GGPs that come out of quarantine stations are housed in highly biosecure farms around Australia and themselves go on to produce fertile eggs that are hatched to produce the next generation – the Grandparent (GP) generation. The Grandparents are then used to produce a Parent (P) generation, and finally these Parents are mated to produce fertile eggs that hatch to become the ultimate generation – the 590 million meat chickens that are used for meat consumption annually.

At each breeding step, two things happen. Firstly, there are different breeding lines crossed to produce crossbred male and female lines for the next breeding generation and, secondly, the number of birds in the subsequent generation is multiplied up. Once mature (at about 20 weeks of age) each breeder hen can produce about 130 offspring in a single year.

The whole process is represented in the infographic below. This shows how the numbers of individual birds in each generation steadily increases through to the ultimate meat chicken generation, and – voila! – we end up with 590 million meat chickens.

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Why do we import new Great Grandparents? Why don’t we just use existing meat chickens to breed more of the same?

The answer to the first question is simple….we import new chicken genetics on an ongoing basis because the strains are improving all the time. We would fall behind the rest of the world, and fail to deliver the benefits that ongoing selection offers to consumers, if we didn’t do so.

And while the meat chicken generation is perfectly capable of going on to maturity and themselves produce offspring, they are generally not used for breeding. The reason why they aren’t used is that, as I mentioned previously, several different genetic lines are brought in at each new importation, each of which has specific characteristics desired in the next generation. These lines are then crossed to produce a subsequent generation which differs again from the one before…and so on. The use of crossbreeding is common in animal production – it creates a stronger, more robust progeny due to the principle of ‘hybrid vigour’, whereby the robustness and health of the cross is greater than the average of their parents. It’s the opposite of inbreeding – a concept people may be more familiar with. The greater the genetic differences between the parents, the more to gain from hybrid vigour. In the case of the Parents of the ultimate meat chicken generation, the male and female parent lines each also bring their own characteristics – the male, good muscling and body weight, and the breeder hen the capacity to lay plenty of fertile eggs to be hatched into meat chickens.

So the meat comes from Australian chickens?

Yes – the chicken meat available across Australia is almost exclusively from meat chickens grown in Australia, even though their ancestors may have come from other parts of the world. They are genuine “fourth generation” Australian meat chickens.

But… what comes first?

Well, the above may not answer the age old rhetorical question “what comes first…the chicken or the egg?” but I hope it helps to explain a little about the breeding processes required to deliver the 590 million meat chickens required to meet the demands of Australia’s chicken meat consumers each year.

Australian Chicken – truly home grown!

Why new Country of Origin labelling?

Remember the frozen berry recall in February this year? If so, you may also recall that this incident led to widespread calls for better information to be provided on the label of food products sold in Australia so that consumers could understand where the food had been produced and/or where the ingredients in it had been grown. In reality, this matter had been under consideration by the Australian government for some time – indeed a report on an inquiry into country of origin labelling of foods had been released in October 2014. Nevertheless, the frozen berry incident undoubtedly provided significant impetus for the development of a system for country of origin labelling of food in Australia.

The outcome of this is that the Australian Government is proposing a new labelling system to deliver clearer and more consistent messages regarding the country of origin of foods sold in Australia. The proposed new system was announced in July.

The new labeling system is a big step towards ending the confusion around country of origin labeling, especially for consumers who want to know how much of a product was manufactured or grown locally.

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How will it affect chicken meat?

Three years ago, the ACMF undertook a survey which revealed that widespread misconceptions out there in the community about the origin of chicken meat sold in Australia, with over 65 percent of Australians believing that some, most or even all of chicken meat in Australia is imported ((Ref: Galaxy Research, Australians aged 18-64 years, sample 1,218 respondents, July, 2012). This couldn’t be further from the truth.

In fact, as I explained in my blog back in March:
All fresh and frozen raw chicken meat and virtually all further processed and cooked chicken products that are offered for sale in Australia have been produced in Australia (and I mean the chickens have been grown on Australian farms, and processed in Australian processing plants, to Australian standards). Some cooked chicken meat (probably less than half a percent of all chicken meat sold in Australia), is imported, but only if the chicken meat has been processed in accordance with the required protocols (which include prolonged exposure to high temperatures) to destroy viruses and bacteria of concern and to ensure that there is no unacceptable risk to consumers or Australian poultry. This product mainly ends up as an ingredient to processed food (e.g. in canned chicken, soups or animal food). A small amount of cooked chicken meat is also imported from New Zealand.

What will the consumer see in store?

Once introduced, consumers will see statements about where the food was produced, grown, made or packaged. Most Australian food will carry the familiar green kangaroo symbol and an indication of the proportion of Australian ingredients through a statement and a bar graph on the packaging. The new system will also provide clearer rules around when food labels can carry ‘made in’ or ‘packed in’ statements.

The new labelling system is expected to be rolled out in 2016.

What about chicken labels specifically?

Because virtually all chicken meat on sale in Australia has been grown and produced in Australia, you could expect:
• On all fresh chicken, consumers could expect to see ‘Grown In’ Australia country of origin claims.
• On frozen value added chicken products, consumers could expect to see ‘Packed In’ statements and ‘Made In’ Australia claims from 100% Australian chicken / or xx% Australian ingredients.
• On the small range of products containing imported chicken (for example some canned chicken products), consumers will see statements regarding the country of origin eg ‘Made in New Zealand’.

So, will the proposed new country of origin labelling system help to correct existing misconceptions? I hope it will provide reassurance and a reminder to Australian consumers that, whether it is frozen, fresh or value added, close to 100% of all chicken sold in Australia is locally grown. Look out for familiar green and gold on pack!