Australia’s chicken meat industry was something of a ‘late starter’ compared to other major Australian livestock industries. However, its growth from humble beginnings in the early 1950s to today has been nothing short of spectacular. Today chicken meat consumption far exceeds that of any other meat, including beef and lamb combined.
As official records of production were not kept until the mid 1960s, it is not certain when intensive chicken meat production began. Industry sources estimate three million chickens were produced for meat in Australia in 1950-1951, compared with around 653 million in 2016-17.
- Most production was in the hands of ‘backyard’ producers and larger family operations, who tended to produce chickens as an offshoot to egg production, processing spent laying hens or surplus cockerels from the egg industry, often from the family premises.
- Commercial scale production started in the outer Sydney metropolitan area, and other centres of commercial production quickly sprang up around major population centres.
- The late 50s saw significant changes occurring in the industry. While early chicken meat production had been based on spent laying hens and crossbred cockerels, the industry quickly recognised the need to develop an Australian chicken meat breed and the first such strain to be developed was released in 1959.
- Chicken processing became faster and more efficient as continuous chain processing systems were introduced, leading to a rapid drop in the price consumers paid for chicken.
- Chicken meat consumption increased five-fold.
- The ‘integrator’ emerged in the industry. These vertically integrated companies were fashioned on a highly successful US meat chicken company model. They owned chicken breeding and hatching operations, feed mills and chicken processing plants and either owned or contracted out the growing of chickens from day-old to slaughter weight to contract farmers. This continues to be a successful model utilised in the industry today.
- Kentucky Fried Chicken opened its first Australian store in 1968. It had a major impact on chicken consumption.
- Improvements in the genetic material available, refinement of the nutrition and husbandry of meat chickens, and improvements in processing technologies allowed production to surge forward.
- This expansion of the industry was also closely aligned with improved refrigeration and the emergence of the supermarket chains.
- Frozen chicken became the dominant product and this development allowed for economies of scale through centralised production.
- The rise of the fast food restaurant, particularly Kentucky Fried Chicken further fueled consumption.
- By 1970 per capita consumption of chicken had increased to 9.8kg.
- Despite this, in the 60s the industry experienced over supply issues, price wars and significant instability associated with this.
- Production more than doubled again in the 1970s.
- The period 1978-1980, in particular, was one of massive expansion for the Australian poultry industry. Contract shedding in New South Wales alone increased by 40 per cent.
- In just one 12 month period, between 1970 and 1971, 75 Kentucky Fried Chicken stores opened.
- Australian production of chicken increased 38 per cent.
- Over the decade, per capita chicken consumption almost doubled, reaching 19kg.
- The 80s was a decade of significant rationalisation and consolidation in the industry, with many takeovers, mergers and closures of operations.
- Throughout this period, production and consumption of chicken continued to grow, although less spectacularly than previously.
- The market for chicken meat products started to move from one of predominately frozen whole chicken to fresh products, and from whole fresh chicken, to fresh chicken pieces and fresh ready to cook items.
- The range of chicken products available grew, increasing the convenience and versatility of the product offering.
- By 1990 Australians were consuming 23.7kg of chicken each per annum.
- The industry recognised that the local chicken breeders were no longer able to keep pace with the genetic progress being made by overseas breeding companies, resulting in the prior ban on importation of genetic material being lifted and new breeding strains entering the market.
- New housing systems were implemented.
- In 1998 the first commercial-scale free range chicken brand was launched.
- The first half decade of the new millennium saw the Australian chicken meat industry hit hard by drought. A shortage of feed grains and consequent high grain prices led to a difficult few years for the industry, and to chicken price increases.
- While the global financial crisis, which struck towards the end of the decade, severely affected many industries, sales of chicken meat prospered as consumers looked for a better value protein option.
- By the end of 2006, chicken meat had overtaken beef as Australian consumer’s favourite meat.
- This period was characterised by further rationalisation and acquisition within the industry.
- The GVP of the industry grew nearly 70 per cent over the previous decade.
- At the beginning of the decade, consumption of chicken meat overtook that of the red meats combined.
- Consumption in 2016 and 2017 in particular was fuelled by historically very high prices for beef and veal, and lamb globally. This was no doubt assisted by major supermarkets heavily marketing barbecue chicken priced at around $8.
- Several of the major companies that had been held in the same family from the 1950s changed hands.
- Demand for a further differentiated product resulted in the emergence of new product offerings and new third party assurance programs, such as the RSPCA Approved Farming Scheme, in which a large proportion of the industry ultimately participated.
- Several companies moved to rationalise their operations, with some moving out of the more traditional production areas and expanding in other, more favourable areas. This resulted in plant closures and some general shifts in the geographic location of the industry, including greater expansion in regional Australia.
- Significant growth in the free range sector occurred; from a market share of less than 1 per cent in 1998 to almost 20 per cent two decades later.