Brian Daly interviews Cordina Farms CEO, Louise Cordina, to find out more about the meat chicken industry in Australia and what’s been done to improve chicken welfare.
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Opening quote: If we're genuine about welfare for animals, then we want to impact the welfare for as many animals as possible, not just a small percentage of the market. So we felt that what was really needed in Australia was an affordable welfare offering and the best people to help us deliver that with the RSPCA.
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Brian: Hello, and welcome to RSPCA Australia's humane food podcast series. My name is Brian Daly and today I'm talking with Louise Cordina, CEO at Cordina Farms, an Australian owned family business that started back in 1945 and continues to go from strength to strength. Welcome to the podcast, Louise.
Louise: Thanks, Brian. lovely to be here.
Brian: Now, Louise, you're the fourth generation Cordina to take the reins at the company. A lot would have changed over those four generations. Tell us about how the business started and how you have grown to be where you are today.
Louise: Sure. Well, the business actually started back in the 1930s. So a couple of generations even earlier than 1945. That was our original incorporation date. Yes. My great grandfather and my grandfather were the founders of the business back in the 30s. And they had a fairly typical migrant story. My great grandfather had come over from Malta, to, you know, look for a better life for his family had left the family back in Europe until he could forge out some semblance of livelihood. And my teenage grandfather ended up joining him in the 30s. And by that stage, my great grandfather was having a very small farm where he had mixed business but mostly pigs. And grandfather Joe was always an ideas man and as a 13 year old, his chore was to go around the city restaurants and pick up food scraps which he would bring back to the farm to feed the pigs. And in doing that he found a little gap in the market of such which was in those days there was no such thing as a processed ready to use chicken. If you're using a chicken you're pretty much going to the markets and buying one that was still clucking and doing the rest yourself. So he saw an opportunity because of course, the chef's really didn't want to be getting their hands dirty. And he thought that that would be a great idea to be able to provide them with a chicken that was actually ready to use. And as simple as that sounds, it really was probably the first big innovation that the industry ever really saw in Australia. So he started to process some chickens at home literally in the backyard. And when he would travel around those restaurants, he would sell the chickens to the restaurant operators. His very first customer was the Wentworth Hotel in Sydney, which was a bit of an institution in those days, and before too long word got around that he was having this great service of providing the chickens ready to use. And one thing led to another and before he knew it, he was processing more chickens and then his father's pig operation. So before too long, his dad realised that Joe was onto something. And they then focused on chickens from there. So that really was the early origins of the poultry meat industry. In those days, any of the original people who were in poultry were in egg farming, and the only meat chickens that were available with those which were spent hens. So Joe would purchase those spent hens at the markets, process them and then sell them onto the restaurants. So from there, really the industry sort of found its roots and eventually started to scale up to something that looked a little bit more like a like an industry.
Brian: Yes, yes. And this is all in the West Sydney.
Louise: Yeah, the very first operation was actually in Botany. And in 1945, was when they actually had scaled their little operation to a point that they needed a dedicated site for it. And they purchased in Western Sydney, the premises that we still operate on today. So our head office is actually located on that same site that was purchased in 1945. And as it stands is the oldest poultry processing operation in Australia.
Brian: How about that? And so it came to you and was handed down the generations and then you grew up, I guess, literally in the business.
Brian: Felt like a natural progression for you to go into that business.
Louise: Yes, well after my grandfather, obviously took the business through those first few decades and my father and his brother entered the business in the 1970s and then stewarded the business for the next few decades, and then I joined the business officially in the 1990s. But yes, to your point, my earliest memory is of being in a chicken factory. So I think you can, you can truly say you've grown up in the industry if you're if your earliest childhood memories are of being around the business so I certainly as a young child, I was always around the business I always really had a passion for the company and wanted to carry on the family tradition in that regard. So I did you know, all through school I would, work on the weekends and then after school, I became a bigger part of the business and have been very lucky to be able to really learn from you know, the ground up and then be in a position to steward the business through these later, later generations.
Brian: Yeah, and it's a great way to learn that business isn't there to go you know, from the ground up as you say, and now that you are seeing you can really have a really great understanding about what needs to happen within the business every level of it.
Louise: Yes, absolutely. It's, it's a very fast moving and detailed industry, I'm sure most people really would have no idea the amount of planning and detail that goes into actually delivering the product that ends up at home or in their favorite restaurants or retailers, really, it's about a two year process to get a poultry from the initial point of planning and growing all the way through to the time that we would actually have that product saleable. So what we're producing today, the wheels have been set in motion some two years ago. So and considering the pace of the industry that our customers will tell us today what they want for tomorrow. It's really quite a, you know, a bit of a magic trick that we need to be able to do to have this huge farming operation which has been set in stone many, many months ago to be flexible and agile in the moment to give our customers what they need. So certainly having that experience through every facet of the business from a very young age has been really helpful. But it also has helped me have a really inherent understanding of both our customers and also the Australian consumer. And having been able to see that evolve over the decades, see how consumers, that sentiment has changed about the type of products that they need us to provide to them. And the things that are important to consumers are things that really having that really deep understanding of both the industry and the consumer has been invaluable in helping us make decisions for the future part of our business.
Brian: And as you say, you need to be very forward thinking because you need to plan ahead for how consumers will be feeling to four years down the track. And to that point, you know, quite a number of years ago now you made the decision to start farming your chickens to RSPCA approved standards which go beyond the basic legal requirements and provide a higher welfare for the birds. And you did that at a very early stage in what has now become quite a large market and you saw that happening it did your you thought this is this is where the industry needs to head because of the consumers demands.
Louise: We saw a big problem in Australia as far as deep misunderstanding amongst consumers around what options were available to them, and also a issue around affordable welfare products. Back when we first made the decision to engage with RSPCA and really look for another option for Australia. It was a time when consumers were starting to really think about where their food came from. It's a really interesting point when you consider the cost of something like poultry. The industry has done a really good job of delivering what people have asked for, for many decades, which is a really affordable protein. But the reality is we saw a shift a number of years back where consumers started to really shift their sentiment and say, well hang on a minute, I actually really care about where my food is coming from. So I do want it to be cheap and affordable, but I also want to feel good about it. And that really was quite a shift where some of the farming industries had really been doing what consumers were demanding from them, which was to keep making these products more and more affordable. But when we saw a change in the fact that consumers really wanted to take a deeper understanding of the life that those animals had had, leading to that point of them of them being made into products. What we started to see was that people felt like their only option was to opt into a much higher cost welfare offering. So at the time the welfare offerings that were available in the market But we're very expensive. And we're quite misunderstood as to what they really represented. Amazingly, today, consumers are still deeply confused around the facts about where their chicken comes from. So chicken is the most eaten meat in Australia, it's Australia's favourite meat, yet 96% of consumers still now misunderstand the fact that none of them come from cages. Which is, which is quite a stark and alarming number when you think about it because of those consumers that really wanted to make a responsible choice. The fact that they were feeling that they had to go and spend a lot more money to have a chicken that hadn't been in a cage, we saw as a real problem, because not everybody can afford to make those choices. And we wanted all consumers to know that their chickens hadn't been in a cage.
Brian: As opposed to the hens that they're still correct and million hens that are like laying eggs in cages but no meat chickens are.
Louise: That's right and you know consumers can be forgiven for misunderstanding that because to them a chicken is a chicken. They don't really understand the differentiation that the egg industry is an entirely different industry from the chicken industry. And the reality is that the chicken industry, we're already coming from a much higher welfare base than something like sow stall pork products or the egg industry to your point. But consumers really just wanted to know that they were buying responsibly farmed product. And that was our primary reason for engaging with the RSPCA because number one, we felt that they needed to be an independent, trusted voice that consumers could rely on to give them that comfort. And secondly, because we felt like welfare needs to be for everybody. It shouldn't just be an option for people who can afford to buy into a top tier offering. If we genuine about welfare for animals, then we want to impact the welfare for as many animals as possible, not just a small amount percentage of the market. So we felt that what was really needed in Australia was an affordable welfare offering. And that the best people to help us deliver that with the RSPCA.
Brian: And that is the whole reason for the approved farming scheme isn't it to impact the lives of as many animals as possible right now that are in this?
Louise: Absolutely. And I think that's a really key point. Because if you're serious about welfare, that is, what the mission is that we want to make the lives of as many animals as possible, better. The problem with a lot of, you know, I guess, niche type of positions is that it's really more around a market opportunity, you know, or differentiation than genuinely being about welfare, welfare for a large proportion of, of those animals in the system. So we really felt that the RSPCA was the most trusted and independent voice of animals and welfare in Australia. And we felt that consumers you needed to have that independent party who could cut through the confusion. And help them understand that there were products that offered the best of both worlds that they didn't have to pay a lot more for them. But they could also feel good about that purchase.
Brian: But I imagine there were still challenges as a business in meeting those standards to change systems to lower stocking densities to putting in perches and other enrichments for the birds. How did you notice that?
Louise: There was certainly a lot of detail that went into the systems that we put in place, both because we wanted to really be a transparent model for consumers. We felt like there was so much confusion already out there. We wanted what we were doing to be a place that consumers could go. And for one of a better word, sort of cut the crap a little bit. Yes, we set up our website in a very transparent way so that consumers could click on any of these confusing terms to say, well, what's barn reared mean anyway or what's the difference between a tunnel shed and a conventional shed, there's all these confusing terms that nobody knows what it means. And it just creates a lot of difficulty for consumers to really know what was going on. So we really put a lot of emphasis on making sure that the system that we put in place when you scratch below the surface, is what it appears to be. And that we took very seriously the privilege of having the RSPCA endorsement that we were as conscious for that brand, as our own, to make sure that we had a lot of systems in place to ensure that the system was being monitored and upheld as we would we would all expect. Having said that, for us as a business. We have always had a big focus on welfare, and it was certainly not a stretch for us to overlay those additional standards and procedures from a density point of view. For instance, we have always found at a lower density as a business, we have never farmed at the sort of densities that, as it stands now, under the RSPCA system, you know, you can have up to 30% difference between the density that the that the government would find permissible versus what the RSPCA system does, which is quite a significant difference. However, we would never farm at those type of densities. So on in some tokens, it was a great alignment and, and it was an opportunity for us to give consumers that additional assurance, but it certainly did come at additional cost to make sure that you are being able to control those systems and also the enrichments, which you mentioned correctly around purchase. And, you know, and in some of the other things that we do in the barns, a lot of focus on the quality of the bedding that the birds are on it is extra work for the farmers to make sure that they're keeping that bedding in its most optimum condition at all times. So certainly it does come at a cost. And that for us was the biggest challenge that the mission was to deliver affordable welfare. And trying to do that was putting additional cost into your system is certainly a big challenge.
Brian: But you, you seem to have managed the balance there on those low cost expectations of consumers. But as you mentioned, they still want to know where their food is coming from and want to know, it's treated well and raised humanely.
Louise: Absolutely. And I look, I think we've done a great job of delivering a product now that Australians really should be able to feel proud of when they go to their favourite retailer and pick up a packet of Australian grown poultry. One of the real objectives for us was for consumers to be able to not have to spend more money, pick up that packet and feel good about the fact that they're supporting Australian farmers, creating lots of great impact on the economy, creating a lot of jobs and not feeling that they were having to make a sacrifice about the welfare of those products.
Brian: And you were quite early adopters of the RSPCA Approved standards. Have you seen a change in the broader industry over the over that time?
Louise: Absolutely. I think we've seen a real momentum created, where over those years since, since we started, a very large proportion of the poultry available in Australia now is RSPCA Approved. So it has been a significant change. And one that we were certainly conscious of when we entered into our arrangement with the RSPCA. We did it very knowingly being a drop that would start a ripple effect, we were not doing it because we thought it would be a point of difference for our business, or that we were trying to have some type of early mover market advantage. We did it because we knew somebody needed to start the movement, and that when we did it, others would follow. And our absolute expectation was that whilst we were among the first that within a relatively fixed window of time that we would see a large proportion have the industry shift in that direction. And that's certainly what we’ve seen.
Brian: And that goes back to your roots of seeing an opportunity and seeing this is the way things could be done better.
Louise: Absolutely. I think innovation is in our DNA. As I mentioned earlier, the whole concept of creating a fresh ready to use chicken in itself was by seeing that there was a consumer need that wasn't being met. And a lot of what we do in our business focuses around that exact ethos. And it's the whole reason why we are really an innovation leader in Australia. We're very much always thinking about what consumers need from us. And we're very anti thinking, we've always done it that way. We're not interested in what we've always done in the past, we're always looking for where there's a gap where there's a problem, and how we can help be a solution to that problem. And we certainly saw that there was a gap and a problem in this case.
Brian: And the same with the development of the value added meals that you have under your freedom farms brand, and that are also RSPCA Approved that part of the innovation that you saw a gap in the market, the consumers wanted the product.
Louise: Yes. And again, a lot of our business really focuses on innovative products. For that reason, we're always looking for ways that we can make consumers lives a little bit easier. And we're really seeing a change in the way that the eating patterns of people in Australia, the type of families and households that we have in Australia, and all of those things mean that our food products need to evolve to make life simpler and easier. Everybody's very, very time poor these days. And they again, don't want to have to make the compromise of just because I don't have enough time I need to eat poorly or not be able to offer my family a wonderful meal. So for us as an innovator, we're always looking for ways where we can take a few steps out of a process, make it a little bit quicker to prepare a meal at the end of the day or have a snack on the run, or whatever the case may be, so, certainly the fact that we've been able to incorporate into that, you know, a great value higher welfare offering. With all of that versatility and convenience. We really feel like we're solving a lot of problems for consumers all at one time.
Brian: And as you mentioned, the growth has been quite rapid in that boast chickens rise to aerospace a stands now and that would be helped by you know, the big retailers. As you mentioned, Coles and Woollies have both adopted the RSPCA Approved chicken cross their lines and yeah, that's a huge impact. Obviously, you're starting to see a similar uptake across foodservice industries like restaurants and cafes.
Louise: Yes, definitely. In fact, some of our largest partners in the food service part of the market have already transitioned to our RSPCA poultry or are in the process of doing so. So, in fact, a lot of the products that people might be eating out there at their favourite casual dining restaurants So, or fast food may well already be RSPCA. So some of our customers like Nando's Oporto, Grilld, or all food service customers who, who were already working with us to have our ARSPCA certified products available to their customers.
Brian: That's fantastic. So it's you've, you've really got on board and seen the whole thing, you know, expand rapidly over the last decade or so I imagine.
Louise: Yes. And the whole reason that we, that we went down this path was so that we could support our partners to also deliver on what their customers wanted from them. So we were very conscious that some of our close partners in those food service brands also have, you know, very strong commitment to welfare and sustainable sourcing. So by us going down this path, we've been able to help them achieve their objectives of also delivering on what their consumers are looking for.
Brian: You've always seemed at Cordina to be able to identify opportunities, you know, have this vision to see where the market is heading and get out in front. How do you see the industry, the chicken industry evolving over the next decade or so?
Louise: I think we'll continue to see a progression towards what has started with this interest in where food comes from. Welfare has certainly been the focus up until now, as far as people wanting to understand more about how the food they eat is produced. And I think we'll continue to see a lot of movement in those directions, whether that be on welfare, or sustainability. You know, it's certainly a space that people are really starting to think about how the choices they make impact the environment more broadly around them. So yes, big focus on sustainable systems. As far as how we produce our products, I think people are thinking differently about the choices that they make, how much impact they themselves want to have and what footprint they leave. The great part about poultry we have courses that have all of the meat proteins, it's actually a extremely sustainable system and meat to produce in that it has a lot lower carbon co2 emissions than any other meat produced, uses less energy, less water. So there's a great sustainability story or feelgood factor around poultry for those who choose to eat meat. So I think that that's certainly something that we'll see people continuing to make those choices more towards poultry for that reason. But equally, I think we'll start to see more and more people thinking differently about what other protein choices they can make when looking for choices that don't involve meat as well. So I think we're going to see a lot of interesting movement over the next 10 years where people really think about both the meat proteins and the non meat proteins that they consume. And we'll certainly still be looking for that versatility with the changing eating habits that were that we're really saying.
Brian: Yes, because there is so used to be an awakening of the impact each of us makes as an individual, and how we can collectively make things better.
Louise: Very much so and I think it's another area where consumers are really relying on us to be innovative. Because the reality is that whilst consumers are interested, and they want to make a difference in this regard, they also can't afford to pay significant amounts more for it. And, you know, similar to the movement we saw on welfare, people who want to be making sensible sustainability choices, we don't want to be putting them in a position where they can only do it if they can afford to. So I think really, the mission for food producers going forward is to be thinking about making our products as sustainable as possible, so that people also don't have to make that compromise.
Brian: You can be sustainable across the board.
Louise: Yes, correct.
Brian: Well, thanks, Louise. It's been great talking to you and hearing about all the improvements that you're making. It sounds like you're doing an amazing job on a large scale to help improve the welfare of animals in farming and RSPCA approved farming scheme. I look forward to seeing where Cordina takes it next.
Louise: Thanks, Brian. Really appreciate that. And it's lovely to talk to you.
Brian: We've been talking today with Louise Cordina of Cordina Farms. Thank you for listening. If you would like any more information about RSPCA approved farming scheme, visit rspcaapproved.org.au. You can also subscribe to the podcast series at the RSPCA website rspca.org.au all the usual podcast suspects. I'm Brian Daly and I look forward to your company next time on the RSPCA Australia humane food podcast.