HAS University of Applied Sciences, Heijs Food Products, Wageningen University & Research and Marks & Spencer have been collaborating since 2015 in a large 3-year European research project on the development of an innovative poultry supply chain. The recently published report marks a huge step forwards on the route towards a safe and sustainable supply chain for poultry for meat (broilers).
Particularly notable is that all 5 HAS study programmes combined 30 different professional assignments in a single project. The 62 graduates were supervised by 20 HAS lecturers as well as researchers from Wageningen UR. A construction such as this has never been used before, but it has given us a taste for more of the same.
Safe and sustainable poultry supply chain
“Together with the project partners, our aim was to develop a safe and sustainable supply chain,” says Gerben Hofstra, who coordinated the project from within HAS University of Applied Sciences. “The consumer needs to be assured of high quality, reliable and healthy poultry meat produced in a sustainable way,” he continues. “That’s why innovation in the sector is necessary. The market for poultry meat has been flooded for years with, sometimes anonymous, bulk chicken products from countries where it is produced at lower cost and where lower demands are set for food safety, product quality and animal welfare. The Dutch sector needs to differentiate itself from this. At the same time, businesses want to respond to the higher standards consumers now demand.”
The poultry butcher and processor Heijs Food Products provided the original stimulus for the project. As a key figure in the entire supply chain, they recognised the need for innovation and opened discussions with Wageningen UR. HAS University of Applied Sciences provided project teams consisting of a total of 62 graduating students from 5 different study programmes. “We’ve learnt a lot about collaboration with other parties,” says Hofstra. “It’s great to see how students from different study programmes approach things from their own perspective, complementing one another at the points at which the study programmes meet. Applied Biology and Animal Husbandry & Animal Care are at the start of the supply chain, Food Innovation and Food Technology at the end and Business Management in Agriculture & Food has an overview of the entire chain. It truly was a HAS-wide project: not only students, but also colleagues made new connections.”
Impact on almost the entire poultry supply chain
“The report clarifies where changes are needed and where they can be best applied to make rapid improvements,” says Hofstra. “The research findings affect almost the entire poultry supply chain. They provide guidelines for the sector for improving and monitoring sustainability, and providing transparency. We produced concrete improvements for animal welfare which can now be monitored and assessed thanks to the welfare model that we developed. A number of bottlenecks have also been revealed which the sector itself is working on to improve. Results have also been achieved in the battle against campylobacter infections which have consequences for food safety and thus for the consumer. Finally, new and healthier products have been developed which have a direct added value for public health (reduced salt content and allergen-free), but also help maximise the economic value of the entire animal.”
From ‘Farm to fork’ to a sustainability model
“The project was sub-divided into 4 work packages,” Hofstra explains. “Product transparency and recognisability, Animal Welfare, Healthy and robust animals, and finally Valorisation and development of allergen and E-number free poultry meat products. Project teams from the Business Management in Agriculture & Food study programme focussed on maximum transparency and traceability (‘farm to fork’) during the collaboration, including the development of a system to measure and monitor integral sustainability. After mapping out the poultry supply chain, they chose to focus on 3 links: broiler chicken farms, slaughterhouses and processors. They then developed a sustainability model for these, giving broiler farmers and the processing industry an insight into how to apply relatively simple changes to increase their level of sustainability.
Platforms and wood shavings are better than perches and alfalfa straw
Applied Biology and Animal Husbandry & Animal Care students conducted research in the field of animal welfare such as enrichment measures for poultry sheds. Their experiments showed that broiler chickens prefer some measures above others. For example, the chickens preferred to rest on platforms rather than on perches. For exploration behaviour and foraging they preferred bails of wood shavings to bails of alfalfa straw. “To be able to assess and monitor the concrete improvements to animal welfare, a welfare model with 14 indicators was developed,” says Hofstra. “The broiler chicken farmer can score animal welfare points based on this welfare model and in the future, clients such as Marks & Spencer can use the model to buy and sell poultry meat with a certain welfare score.”
Aiming toward campylobacter-free production
The teams from the Animal Husbandry & Animal Care and Applied Biology study programmes also focussed on improving animal health and robustness, aiming towards antibiotic-free and campylobacter-free production. From their research into the measures to reduce campylobacter infection at the farm and during the slaughter process, they concluded that there were multiple ways that campylobacter entered the farm. Hofstra: “We researched how to prevent chickens from being infected and how you can make sure that any infection does not end up in the meat. For example, to reduce infection during the slaughter process, 3 intervention methods were tested. The results showed that each of these methods on its own was more successful in reducing bacterial counts compared to no intervention.”
‘No sticky fingers’: clean hands after eating
Students from the Food Innovation and Food Technology study programmes focussed on the development of new added-value poultry meat products. “One of our research results was that the salt content of spicy chicken wings (hot wings) could be reduced by 25%,” says Hofstra. “The experiments with allergen-free hot wings revealed that a combination of chickpeas, rice and tapioca flour resulted in the best gluten-free batter with similar or better characteristics compared to the reference product with a standard batter. Another project led to the development of 4 concepts for international-style marinades for chicken thighs. All marinades are allergen-free, low in salt with few E-numbers. A variety of product concepts were developed for the valorisation of leg meat. One of these concepts is ‘no sticky fingers’, consisting of a drumstick with a clean bone, resulting in clean hands after eating.”
This project was made possible by the partnership between Noord-Nederland, Koers Noord, and the provinces of Groningen and Drenthe.