Fowl play

Popular with chefs and diners, chicken has had to struggle to stay on menus during the bird flu outbreak. However, as Caterer discovers, its versatility and cost has helped it stay abreast of the situation

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By  Lynne Nolan Published  December 1, 2006

|~|Eric-Feature.jpg|~|"We fly in fresh chicken for fine dining restaurants in the UAE in a bid to remain active, but it is proving expensive,” comments Eric Santier, managing director, Sopexa Middle East. |~|Popular with chefs and diners, chicken has had to struggle to stay on menus during the bird flu outbreak. However, as Caterer discovers, its versatility and cost has helped it stay abreast of the situation Chicken is one of the most popular meats in the market. Not only can it be used in a variety of dishes; from stews and roasts to burgers and curries, it is also one of the cheapest meats, in part due to estimations that in 2003 there were 24 billion chickens, according to the Firefly Encyclopaedia of Birds. However, over the past year, the popularity of chicken has waned due to the spread of the H5N1 virus, more commonly known as bird flu. Within the first three days of detection in Hong Kong, for example, more than 1.5 million birds were killed. Although this is only a small amount of the total population of birds, the knock on effect across the globe forced up prices, with countries like the UAE banning the import of poultry from infected countries. Before avian influenza broke out, poultry imports to the UAE reached AED830 million (US $226 million), but countries exporting chicken to the UAE have been affected by the ban, most notably France — which is the third biggest supplier of chicken in the UAE. “Sales of French chicken in the UAE plummeted by 50% between February and June because of the ban, but we have been losing our market share for a while, resulting in a total loss of 20% in sales over the past 10 years,” comments Eric Santier, managing director, Sopexa Middle East, which imports frozen chickens under the brands Tilly-Sabco and Doux. “With Brazil and Saudi Arabia currently the top selling suppliers of chicken — coupled with rivalry from local producers — competition is tough, we fly in fresh chicken for fine dining restaurants in the UAE in a bid to remain active, but it is proving expensive,” comments Santier. French poultry exports to the UAE dropped by a staggering 71% from 9766 tonnes between January and August in 2005, to 2836 tonnes for the same period in 2006, with the value of exports for the region for the first nine months standing at €2.4 million ($3.1 million), almost a quarter of last year’s figure of €8.1 million ($10.4 million). The largest importer of chicken to the region, however, is Sadia, which imports Brazilian chicken. “We have been present in the Middle East since 1975, and now reach out to 10 markets, including Yemen, Qatar, Oman, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the UAE,” says Roberto Banfi, director, international sales, Sadia Dubai. The company also plans to mark the start of 2007 with the formation of a new team dedicated to the Middle East’s foodservice sector. The team will develop a new solution line, with its product portfolio currently offering frozen grillers, broilers, parts, boneless and processed chicken. Despite the strong presence of imported chicken in the region, local poultry is also gaining ground. Dr Hussain Hassanin, technical director of Emirates Poultry Producers’ Association, believes that restaurants in the Middle East are rapidly moving towards local, fresh chicken, as its price is more competitive than frozen imports. But even the local market has been affected by bird flu. “People just stopped eating chicken last year, which was devastating for the UAE industry. Bird flu fears resulted in a loss of AED30 million ($8.2 million) for farmers in the UAE. One large farmer alone lost AED5 million ($1.4 million),” Hassanin reveals. Competing with international brands is proving a complex process for poultry farms in the Middle East, as input costs are high. The price of raw materials in the UAE, particularly feed, veterinary supplies and even imports of day-old baby chicks from Europe, are putting pressure on producers. Yet the competition is proving beneficial for the restaurant industry, as companies roll out innovative and quality produce in a bid to gain market share, with local farmers looking towards rearing organic chickens. ||**|||~|NANDOS-FEATURE.jpg|~|“Prices bounce and change so we don’t have one particular supplier, but we tend to order six months worth of products in advance,” comments Suhail Gidwani, CEO, Nando’s UAE. |~|Current statistics, however, show that the total UAE poultry production is set to reach 30,000 tonnes by the end of 2006. Although this is down 5000 tonnes from 2005, production is forecast to increase by 25% in 2007. Saudi Arabian broiler meat production, meanwhile, is forecast to hit 559,000 tonnes next year, an increase of just 2%. Encouraging expansion and the establishment of new farms, the Saudi Arabian government is now offering interest free grants to farmers. Additionally, some poultry producers in Saudi Arabia have developed related businesses, like Al-Fakieh Poultry, which launched its fast food chain Taza Barbecue Chicken in 1990. Other casual dining chains have also reaped the dividends of positioning chicken as their core offering, in particular Nando’s UAE, which specialises in grilled peri-peri chicken. Planning to boast 18 outlets by 2009, the existing five outlets currently use 600 birds per day from local producers. “Prices bounce and change so we don’t have one particular supplier, but we tend to order six months worth of products in advance,” comments Suhail Gidwani, CEO, Nando’s UAE. “The main problem with altering suppliers is that the variance in feeds will result in different tastes, so it’s about ensuring consistency.” Part of Nando’s company policy includes sending its managers to South Africa for intensive training in forward planning, handling chicken products, and temperature control, while a full-time employee inspects the cycle at farms in the UAE at all stages, from slaughter to delivery. “Chicken is a product that can develop salmonella, so we have to operate a very tight regime with a number of control factors,” Gidwani says. ||**|||~|harald-feature.jpg|~|Harald Oberender, corporate executive chef, Dubai World Trade Centre. |~|On a global scale, there are two critical points where quality control is monitored at chicken-processing plants, the first being just before the cleaned carcass enters the chiller — where it is inspected under bright light to ensure it carries no faecal matter — and the second when the bird comes out of the chiller to verify its internal temperature. But it is not just casual dining companies that are reaping the benefits of using poultry. Five-star hotels and restaurants rely heavily on chicken as a staple for their menus, as well as a way of reducing costs. Using up to 900 portions of fresh chicken every day across its food outlets, the Dubai World Trade Centre (DWTC) positions chicken — sourced from France and Italy — as its highest-selling product for conferences, however it rarely uses frozen and local products. “We promote the chicken’s versatility and ability to withstand different cooking techniques by accompanying it with unusual spices, fruits and vegetables,” comments Harald Oberender, corporate executive chef, DWTC. “We also take advantage of being a large corporation by sourcing large volumes of fresh chicken,” he adds. There is also a move at DWTC towards specialist production, such as offering baby chicken and guinea fowl, as well as milk and corn-fed chicken from South America and South Africa. Graham Northcott, executive chef, Sheraton Doha Resort & Convention Hotel, also sees the benefits of using chicken, as it vastly improves profit margins due to its low costs, even when using corn-fed chicken from Europe. However, whether used to increase profits and cut down food cost percentages, or to appeal to a greater audience, chicken is still a popular meat among chefs, due to its versatility and high demand. ||**||

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