The Poultry Plant of the Future
A hallmark of the Agricultural Technology Research Program (ATRP) is its quest to drive transformational innovation in the poultry industry. Working with the University of Georgia’s Department of Poultry Science, ATRP has embarked on a research journey to define the next generation of poultry processing methods and technologies. ATRP Program Manager Doug Britton discusses the strategic initiative: “The Poultry Plant of the Future.”
ATRP has joined the University of Georgia (UGA) in a strategic initiative, “The Poultry Plant of the Future.” This initiative is focused on envisioning what poultry production and processing should look like in 20, 30, or even 50 years. The concept stems from the fact that the practices of poultry production and processing have not changed fundamentally in the past 60 years. The consensus among researchers was that the time is right to reconsider these processes and to actively drive and evaluate new and different approaches to poultry processing.
Much of the technology used in today’s poultry processing is based on a system that has been in place since the 1950s. Current methods are a mixture of historical practices and labor-saving mechanization retrofitted with modern technologies. These retrofits were done in an attempt to meet more and more stringent sanitation, worker safety, and environmental regulatory demands. However, continuing to plug new technology into a 60-year-old system is not a viable long-term strategy for maintaining a thriving poultry processing system. At the same time, U.S. poultry production faces international competition to produce products in larger quantities at lower costs. There are also growing regulatory pressures to improve food safety and reduce overall environmental impact. Current methods will eventually reach a limit in their ability to address these growing demands/issues.
The goal of this strategic initiative is to develop innovative approaches for improving the overall performance and efficiency of poultry processing. The underlying drivers are shifting with increased focus on animal welfare, water consumption, waste minimization, sanitation, food safety, environmental impact, and worker safety. Using integrated systems-based approaches, researchers are seeking to address many of the challenges by looking across the entire production and processing chain (see diagram below).
The first and most important aspect of establishing a strategic initiative of this scope is to build a network of collaborators from a variety of disciplines with complementary areas of expertise. ATRP and UGA’s Department of Poultry Science researchers are building a network of potential collaborators with other universities and labs with targeted poultry-related research activities. Several one-day workshops have been held to lay the foundation for what we hope will become a multi-institutional center with research focused on the exploration of key technological and scientific challenges that face the poultry industry.
In addition, kernels of “out-of-the-box” research project ideas have begun to form through discussions among researchers from the various institutions. We strongly believe that it will be at the intersection between the traditional sciences and engineering where truly new and interesting approaches are developed. In order for this to occur, we must encourage and enable cross-disciplinary teams that can focus on specific common challenges. In the end, it will be the ideas generated and the results of the research that will determine the success of the effort.
Another key component and somewhat more challenging aspect of this strategic initiative is identifying funding opportunities to support the research, given the fiscal constraints at both the federal and state level. ATRP has begun to seed research activities that are aligned with this strategic effort with the anticipation that larger funding opportunities will eventually come. The need for transformational research in animal agriculture systems (and poultry, in particular) has been discussed with key federal and state government stakeholders. The national trade organizations and affiliated industry members also have played a crucial role in helping to build the case for targeted research focused on the future of poultry production and processing. Rapid adoption of technology has made the U.S. poultry industry an American success story. For the poultry industry to continue to be a global leader in protein production, it is imperative that the research to enable technological change be promoted and funded.