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Poultry giant goes to lab in quest for meatier chickens

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Wen's is under pressure for new sales channels. The habit of buying poultry alive to guarantee freshness has made it vulnerable to market shutdowns during bird flu outbreaks in recent years.

Beijing

CHINA'S top poultry producer, Guangdong Wen's Foodstuff Co Ltd, is turning to genetic science to target the country's fast-growing supermarket and fast-food sectors.

Wen's is drawing on an in-house gene bank and breeding unit to create new varieties of meatier chickens for processing at slaughterhouses to better serve restaurant chains and supermarkets, Wen Pengcheng, a director of the company and its largest shareholder, told Reuters.

That represents a sharp departure from Wen's roots serving local markets, where the animals are sold alive to customers. "You need a certain weight, the body should look good, the taste must suit people's expectations," he said, describing the chickens the company was aiming for.

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If successful, Wen's could start eating into the sales of companies like Fujian Sunner Development Co that sell broiler chickens bred for their meat efficiency.

Wen's is making the move at a time when its main business, pigs, is suffering from a dramatic slump in prices. Net profits in 2017 fell 42.6 per cent to 6.8 billion yuan (S$1.4 billion) on revenues of 55.7 billion yuan.

Earnings are set to fall further this year amid an oversupply of hogs in the market.

First-quarter profits were down 4.4 per cent to 1.4 billion yuan, and Wen's shares have lost 15 per cent of their value since the start of the year.

But despite a price/earnings ratio that lags smaller, more specialised peers like poultry processor Fujian Sunner or the pig producer Muyuan Foods, Wen's was big enough to ride out prolonged losses from its pig business, said Chen Lu, analyst at Zhongtai Securities. "There has always been this cyclical volatility," she noted, adding that the poultry unit would help to "flatten" the risk.

Wen's is China's leading producer of native breeds, also known as yellow-feathered chickens, which account for about 40 per cent of the country's poultry market, or 4.7 million tonnes last year. The slower-growing chickens are preferred over white-feathered broilers bred by global companies for their stronger taste in popular dishes like stewed chicken soup, as well as their firmer meat and widely assumed superior nutritional merits.

Wen's plan is to develop native chickens that are meatier as well as being tasty. Some smaller producers of the native birds, like Hunan Xiangjia Animal Husbandry, already have growing sales in supermarkets and online grocers. Hunan Xiangjia said processed chicken now accounts for more than half of its sales, or about 646 million yuan during 2017.

Wen's currently sells about 80 per cent of its poultry, or around 600 million birds a year, live to markets, said Mr Wen.

A shift into retail by the world's fifth-largest poultry company could have a big impact on the market, said Pan Chenjun, senior analyst at Rabobank. "It will definitely impact white meat, with consumers trading up and looking for better-tasting product," she added, referring to the white-feathered chickens.

Wen's has been forced to pay more attention to new sales channels. The habit of buying poultry alive to guarantee freshness has made the company vulnerable to market shutdowns during bird flu outbreaks in recent years.

Almost 300 people died during China's worst-ever bird flu outbreak last year, many of them workers in the live poultry trade. Closed markets and a 30 per cent drop in poultry prices pushed Wen's 2017 profits down by 46 per cent. Though sales recovered when markets reopened in late spring, markets are expected to face regular closures, with some closing altogether as authorities try to curb the spread of disease.

Demand from such markets will also decline as younger, busy urbanites opt for more convenient food channels. "If we can't find a solution, yellow chicken consumption will gradually decrease," said Mr Wen. REUTERS

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