Poultry industry paradigms: Connecting the dots

Estimated reading time: 16 minutes

  • Providing high-quality food for the increasing world population with limited natural resources is a challenge for animal agriculture.
  • It has been predicted that the global population will reach over 9,2 billion in 2050 (FAO, 2012) and that the total global food demand will increase by 35 to 56% between 2010 and 2050 (Van Dijk et al., 2021). For this reason, it is crucial to improve the efficiency of protein production in a sustainable way.
  • Poultry production continues to play an increasing role in providing safe, nutritious and affordable animal protein to the growing global population because of its shorter lifecycle and high feed efficiency when compared to other livestock species.
  • Poultry production has become more efficient in the last five decades. Behind the progress in the broiler and layer industries is an increase in the genetic potential of commercial birds used for meat or egg production.
  • Over the past several decades, the poultry industry has had an emphasis on production efficiency, health, and quantity of broiler meat, but the industry needs to focus on quality as well.

Providing high-quality food for the increasing world population with limited natural resources is a challenge for animal agriculture. Over the past decades, poultry production has undergone remarkable advancements to adapt to challenges and changes in consumer expectations.

Among these changes, the need for an animal protein production system that considers the social, economic, and environmental aspects of sustainability has increased. With that in mind, efforts were and will continue to be made toward improving various aspects of the poultry production chain.

It has been predicted that the global population will reach over 9,2 billion in 2050 (FAO, 2012) and that the total global food demand will increase by 35 to 56% between 2010 and 2050 (Van Dijk et al., 2021). For this reason, it is crucial to improve the efficiency of protein production in a sustainable way.

The objective of this overview is to describe the evolution and provide insight into possible future directions of different components of the poultry industry.

The expectation of consumers

Consumer expectations regarding food consumption have changed over the years. These changes have been associated with increased health consciousness, concern with product quality and safety, ethical perceptions, environmental friendliness, animal welfare, social consciousness and price (IRI, 2020a, 2021a, b). External factors are also able to change consumer behaviour and an example of that was the 2020 COVID-19 global pandemic (IRI, 2020b; Tao et al., 2022).

Before 2020, retail food sales would increase between 1 and 3% a year, with some variation by department and category. Back in the mid-2010s, the fresh food categories grew faster than total store, but just before 2020, fresh food growth slowed down (IRI, internal reports). One of the hallmarks of that decade was the continued faster growth of out-of-home food vs in-home food. The Covid-19 pandemic, however, altered long standing trends and established new ones (Tao
et al., 2022).

During the pandemic, in-home cooking significantly increased in the United States (US), with grocery spending spiking by more than 50% and spending in restaurants and hotels decreasing by more than 60% during the first months of 2020 (USDA, 2021). On average, approximately ten different cuts of meat per year were consumed by the population before 2020. Now, there is an increase in 30% of households buying and rebuying additional cuts and meats, such as seafood, premium meat cuts, and different proteins (e.g., lamb and veal; IRI, internal reports).

Moreover, over the last two years, almost every category in the store saw a major share shift from value products to premium products (IRI, internal reports). This trend is seen across all income categories and it might be due to the transition to working from home, as well as improved cooking skills.

Additionally, with people spending more time in their homes, sales of appliances soared. The purchase of grills increased by 30% and a significant higher volume of sales has been reported for small appliances such as slow cookers, air fryers, pizza ovens and cookware (IRI, internal reports). The purchase of chicken wings has increased 14% over the last year, which could be related to the higher use of air fryers, that make it easy to cook and customise (IRI, internal reports).

With that in mind, companies are now creating food products for these appliances, transforming them into innovation platforms that are driving growth for products.

Welfare and sustainability

Poultry production continues to play an increasing role in providing safe, nutritious and affordable animal protein to the growing global population because of its shorter lifecycle and high feed efficiency when compared to other livestock species. Poultry production has continued to grow at a linear rate of about 2,8% per year since 2000 (FAO, 2018). From 2001 to 2020, poultry meat production grew from 14 to 20 million tons, whereas the production of eggs increased from 7,2 to 9,3 million dozen eggs in the US (FAOSTAT, 2022).

Sustainability in livestock production is often associated with economics and the environment. It considers the efficiency with which livestock animal species can best utilise the planet’s resources (raw materials, energy, land and water), transforming them into high-quality animal protein while focussing on financial success, meeting consumer expectations, and minimising its impact on the planet.

From the environmental standpoint, agriculture and related land use were shown to be responsible for 17% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from all sectors in 2018, with livestock production contributing two-thirds of this total (FAOSTAT, 2018). When categorised by species, in 2017, poultry contributed to the global GHS emissions by 10,8%, whereas cattle and swine contributed by 62,2 and 10,1%, respectively (FAO, 2017).

Mitigation strategies, such as genetic selection, technical improvement (e.g., management, precision livestock farming), dietary changes and manure management, have been proposed in order to minimise the environmental impact of livestock production (Grossi et al., 2018; Tullo et al., 2019). The use of breeding showed the potential to reduce emissions from dairy cattle, for example, by selecting correlated traits, such as feed efficiency and longevity (Wall et al., 2010). The chicken egg-layer industry has had the greatest gains (-25%), followed by broilers (-23%) when compared to beef cattle (0%) and sheep (-1%). Other livestock (dairy cattle and pigs) showed intermediate reductions.

Additional social aspects are the attraction and retention of quality employees and the impact of livestock production on the society. Investment in well-trained and properly compensated stock people is essential to ensure good animal welfare (Daigle and Ridge, 2018). Satisfied employees are more likely to frequently inspect the animals, increasing the early detection of problems (Dawkins, 2017) and are often proud of producing healthy cared-for animals (Hemsworth
et al., 2009).

Moreover, organisations such as the National Chicken Council and Animal Agricultural Alliance have moved toward releasing annual sustainability reports and Corporate Social Responsibility is becoming an important part of the company business model (Dawkins, 2017).

Read more about poultry houses for broilers here.

Genetic revolution

Poultry production has become more efficient in the last five decades. Behind the progress in the broiler and layer industries is an increase in the genetic potential of commercial birds used for meat or egg production. A pivotal moment for the evolution of the poultry industry was the specialisation and diversification of genetic stock developed and selected for meat production vs egg production, rather than selected for dual-purpose production.

In addition, the genetic improvement of commercial poultry products relies not only on a robust evaluation programme, whose core component is the intense selection process for key economic traits. It also relies on an overall breeding programme, which includes a pyramidal gene flow that uses hybridisation along the multiplication stages from great-grandparents (GGP) to grandparents (GP) and parent stock (PS).

Phenotype is king

Genetic improvement is possible thanks to phenotypes recorded as quantitative or categorical values, compiled in datasets, to feed into software for predicting breeding values. Contrary to the original expectations, practical implementation of genomic selection requires the continual collection of good quality genotypes and phenotypes and model retraining to maximise its benefits (Weng et al., 2016).

Breeding goals evolved from simply recording body weight for broilers, and counting eggs for layers and utilising family means to more sophisticated evaluation programmes for broilers and layers, including different components of the production (PD) curve, efficiency (feed intake and feed conversion), product quality, fitness, and reproduction, behavioural and disease-related traits.

More recently, breeding goals have expanded to include welfare-related traits such as bone strength, gait, which are measured using novel technologies, such as x-ray, CT-scan, iStat, automated camera gait scores, hypobaric chambers, and specific disease trials (Wolc, 2022); as well as behaviour-observation traits, such as temperament, flightiness, and perching and nesting behaviour.

Moreover, data collection must adapt to changing housing systems to collect individual data in group housing: feeding stations for broilers, automatic nests for layers, and sensors to track behaviour, among others. The importance of sustainability for food security is reflected in the evolution of breeding goals. Neeteson-van Nieuwenhoven et al. (2013) presented a graphic representation of the relative importance of productivity, feed efficiency, environmental efficiency, human health, product quality, adaptability, robustness, and reproduction for a 75-year horizon (Figure 1).

The graph offers an interesting perspective from the evolution of breeding goals, which mainly emphasised productivity (1950), to complex and balanced set that include all the aspects mentioned (2015 to 2025). In the future, we may rely on advance technologies, such as vision-devices combined with artificial intelligence to process big data for real-time collection. These advancements would enable tracking of bird movements, navigation of housing systems, utilisation of nests, feeding and drinking spaces, and predict or notify about potential health issues.

Learn more about poultry production here.

Nutritional developments

In feed formulation, improved feed efficiency and low cost per kilogram of carcass meat yield is the major goal of commercial nutritionists. These factors drive sustainability, as nutritionists start formulating to meet the bird’s daily nutrient requirements, resulting in the production of more meat with fewer inputs and reducing the carbon footprint and cost of feed.

Furthermore, precision nutrition is a way to improve animal welfare, which is an important pillar of sustainability, as previously mentioned. In order to achieve this level of precision, it is important to continuously improve the methods for evaluating the nutrient value of raw ingredients, invest in the research of different feed additives, as well as determine the animal requirements of the constantly evolving genetic lines.

With that in mind, it is expected that the formulation of diets will shift from a metabolisable energy (ME) based-system to a net energy (NE) system-based. Net energy has been successfully used in swine nutrition as it allows for a more accurate prediction of production performance. However, currently, NE has a smaller advantage over ME for poultry, which is partially attributed to the lower dietary crude fibre content and hindgut fermentation in poultry compared to swine (Van der Klis and Jansman, 2019).

It is also expected that diets will be formulated with more synthetic amino acids beyond the currently economically available methionine, lysine, threonine, valine, arginine and tryptophan that are selectively in use today. This could reduce, to some degree, the crude protein level in the diets, helping to reduce feed costs.

The usage of feed additives, such as enzymes, will continue to be refined and improved, allowing better digestion of nutrients, and computer modelling programs will be utilised more in the future to help poultry nutritionists to optimise feed formulation by focussing on profitability. Moreover, as birds are grown to larger market weights for deboning or roaster markets, separate sex feeding will become more important. This will allow the nutritionist to meet the nutrient requirements of each sex more precisely, avoiding waste of nutrients and resources.

Formulations for niche markets

It is expected that niche markets, such as ‘no antibiotics ever’, ‘all vegetable diets’, slow-growing programmes, GMO-free diets, organic, free-range, and diets for designer meats (e.g., extra omega fat content) will continue to exist, considering that they are often consumer-driven. While these marketing programmes are in place today, the nutritionist will be continuously challenged to find the ingredients to support the future growth of these businesses, maintaining profitability and sustainability compared to the conventional programmes.

Recent studies have been focussing on the nutraceutical properties of feed ingredients, such as amino acids, vitamins, minerals and fatty acids in improving health (Lee et al., 2019; Castro and Kim, 2020; Alagawany et al., 2021; Kim et al.,
2022). However, more research is needed to understand how current feed ingredients can contribute to animal health, especially considering systems in which antibiotics cannot be used.

Feed additives and regulation

The use of different feed additives such as probiotics, prebiotics (e.g., mannan-oligosaccharides and beta-glucans), postbiotics, phytogenic compounds (e.g., oregano oil and saponins), trace elements and short and medium chain fatty acids to help with gut health and improve live performance will continue to be refined. While these products cannot replace antibiotics, they can help the birds to cope with different stressors as well as assist with their recovery.

Because of the large amount of available feed additives and their combinations in the market, nutritionists often struggle when deciding on what to include in their formulations. Furthermore, it is not rare that the results observed in the field are somewhat inconsistent with experimental set-ups, as they fail to show a benefit and some products are not cost-effective.

Thus, nutritionists will need to continue to evaluate different product options that fit their nutritional goals are safe, and are economically feasible, as there is an increasing need to feed the growing population while using fewer resources.

Processing and meat quality

Over the past several decades, the poultry industry has had an emphasis on production efficiency, health, and quantity of broiler meat, but the industry needs to focus on quality as well. There has been an unprecedented emergence of myopathies in recent years in most commercial broilers that have negative impacts on quality. These myopathies have been associated with rapid growth and high breast yield.

Three major issues that have become apparent in recent years are white striping (WS), woody (i.e., hardness) breast (WB) and spaghetti meat (SM). These myopathies are issues around the world that have major economic implications, based on 10 to 40% incidence of moderate/severe cases. Oftentimes, fillets can have more than one of the myopathies/defects present. Severe cases have resulted in unnecessary condemnations, decreased meat quality and yield, changed nutritional content, and continued reduced customer/consumer acceptance.

Various factors have been associated with woody breast in broilers, including metabolic and growth problems associated with large muscle fibres produced by fast-growing broilers, reductions in muscle stem cells, and satellite cell functions (activity and number). While there is ongoing research to determine the root causes of these myopathies, the focus has also been placed on mitigation strategies.

These mitigation strategies should involve genetic and live production factors, including nutritional strategies. However, there is also a need for strategies in the processing plant. This includes quality-based sorting of meat to provide the highest quality end product to consumers, which requires identification and detection of quality issues.

Chilling improvements

Chilling is an important step in poultry processing. It is critical to reduce carcasses temperatures promptly and it is a primary area where antimicrobials are used. With the increase in bird sizes over recent years, there has been a subsequent increase in dwell time in the chiller. This uses valuable resources such as water, energy and even space.

Researchers have developed new chilling methods that would decrease chill time, thereby saving on resources and improving food safety. The use of sub-zero saline chilling (SSC) has been studied to chill carcasses faster and also for bacterial reduction.

Innovation in processing plants

Labour is a critical need for the poultry industry, but in recent times, labour shortages have also been a major issue as a result of high turnover due to working environments (cold), repetitive and tedious tasks and the pandemic. The development of innovative technologies in completing certain tasks does only improve the use of labour (reducing the tedious tasks) but also provides a solution to labour shortages in some cases.

Scientists have developed a virtual reality (VR) based operation to assist in broiler deboning operations at ATRP/GTRI (Britton, 2021). One such operation is cone loading, where a human would operate a robotic arm using VR to load front halves onto a deboning line. The use of VR could be applied to tasks that have been previously hard to automate due to the variability of the product (chicken) size and shape. These operations are directed by humans in a remote site rather than in the plant environment.

Deboning carcasses is a task that is performed manually or through automation. Automated deboners have been used in processing plants for well over 20 years and their performance has improved over the years. However, manual debone lines typically still have better performance in terms of yield when compared to automated systems.

Researchers at ATRP/GTRI have been working to develop better automated deboning systems. They have developed an intelligent cutting system that uses 3D imaging systems that communicate tasks to a robotic arm for deboning or cutting broiler carcasses. This imaging system, combined with collecting data on how humans cut (knife trajections) when deboning has allowed researchers to optimise knife path functions via machine learning.

The combination of 3D imaging and robotics can allow for intelligent adjustment of the cutting process to account for natural variation from carcass to carcass. This allows for much-improved performance that can match human deboners.

Food safety

Food safety continues to be a priority area for poultry processors as it is critical to provide a safe food supply. Micro-organisms such as Salmonella spp. and Campylobacter spp. remain a focal point for food safety research. Evaluating these micro-organisms from a system approach (live production through processing) is important as incoming microbiological loads to the processing plant can affect the loads in final products.

In processing plants, it is necessary to develop new antimicrobials to be used on poultry products, as microbes can adapt to their environment. When choosing antimicrobials, it is also key to understand the impact on product quality. Often, antimicrobials can have negative effects on quality, so, balancing quality and effectiveness against bacteria are important.

There is much ongoing research to understand the microbiome and the impact of antimicrobial treatments in live animals or postharvest. Additionally, it is a priority to use the quantification of Salmonella in the processing plants as a method for assessing its risk for human health, rather than its presence or absence.


It is clear that the poultry industry has undergone remarkable advancements over the past decades, being able to adapt to different challenges and consumer demands dynamically, and it is expected that it will continue to do so.

Consumer expectation and demand have been constantly changing over time, influenced by social trends, ethic and food safety perceptions, economics and external aspects, such as the COVID-19 pandemic. However, some of these changes are not science-based, so it is imperative that the poultry industry should focus on educating consumers in the future.

Sustainability will remain an important topic as we move forward in finding ways to produce high quality and affordable protein, while maintaining animal welfare and minimising the impact on the planet. It also becomes important as a marketing tool, as it increases the reputation of the companies in this consumer-driven industry. Therefore, a good system to track sustainable actions by consumers and supporting agencies is needed.

Precision poultry farming technologies, such as machine vision systems and deep learning models, are promising for the next generation of poultry production and sustainable development. Focus should be placed on how to handle big data collection.

Poultry nutritionists will continue to overcome the industry challenges by adjusting feed formulations to best utilise the available ingredients, meeting the nutritional goals while focussing on improving feed and cost efficiencies. Although alternative ingredients will become more available, it is possible that same ingredients used today will still constitute the majority of the diets.

Technology and automated processes should also be applied in the processing plant with the intent of improving the welfare of workers, detection of meat defects, and continue to provide safe and good quality protein source. – FLS Castro, L Chai, J Arango, CM Owens, PA Smith, S Reichelt, C DuBois and A Menconi.

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