Innovation and poultry are not always comfortable bedfellows, and there may be only so many ways to produce and cut a chicken – but don’t tell Moy Park that. In recent years, the Northern Ireland-based poultry producer has spent millions investigating the most innovative ways to serve up the protein.
Ursula Lavery, technical and research and development (R&D) director – Europe at Moy Park, says the business has made innovation a priority, but stresses that they’re operating from a strong starting point. “We’re very fortunate in that we’re dealing with a healthy and versatile protein in poultry. The demand for the product remains strong and that puts us in a good position to be able to foster growth in the category.”
Moy Park’s investment has been extensive over the past two years. As well as spending £20m to build a hatchery in Newark-on-Trent, it has forked out £18m on its Lincolnshire facilities – £12m of which has been ploughed into mixing and processing kit at Grantham, together with the creation of an innovation and development ‘Food Lounge’ for retail and foodservice at the site.
Lavery says this investment is essential for Moy Park to stay on top of the category, particularly among fickle consumers.
Reflecting consumer needs
“Products in the category need to reflect what consumers need – and right now they seek convenience, innovation and excitement. They want to look at the shelf and get excited. That’s why it’s important to invest in executive chefs and innovation teams, and give them the right facilities in which to work.”
Areas of innovation that Lavery sees as key for Moy Park include the free-from and snacking sectors, although she doesn’t rule anything out. “We see ourselves as a ‘starter-to-dessert’ food provider and keep a close eye on all eating occasions and are very interested in the healthy snacking arena.”
As well as investing in its processing facilities, Moy Park has been working up the supply chain to its producers. It introduced a reporting system, MTech, which covers all links in the chain and enables it to collect and link information from every aspect of the business.
The company was taken over by US operator Pilgrim’s Pride in 2017 for more than £1bn. While having a massive global operator in charge might lead to restrictions for some businesses Lavery says the relationship is working well, enabling the processor to continue its investment programme with a light-touch approach from Pilgrim’s Pride.
“Moy Park has always been a well-invested business. The investments are driven by Moy Park and supported by Pilgrim’s Pride. They’re very supportive as a parent [company], as well as being experts in the poultry field, which creates a great relationship that helps both of us grow.”
Barriers to growth
She sees two major barriers to this growth: one is a potential lack of support for future innovation and the other is the ongoing saga that is Brexit.
“R&D is crucial for economic growth. Government funding for research is invaluable. As an agri-food business, we need world-class research institutions in the UK to drive innovation, growth and jobs.
“The whole Brexit debate has been very distracting for both government and businesses. It’s absorbed a huge amount of energy from other areas.”
As well as taking up energy, it’s also hogging Moy Park’s resources. To be able to react accordingly, the business set up a Brexit committee to monitor likely impacts. As is the case in a lot of meat processing businesses, Moy Park is reliant on a foreign labour force, but it also has to transport the products across borders.
“Any disruption will have a serious impact on our business. We are lucky that we have facilities on both sides of the Irish Sea, so we can create a contingency if there’s a problem at the ports, but there’s a lot of uncertainty over tariffs and quotas that is likely to impact our output.”
On the labour side, the business is exploring more ways to automate to make up for the potential shortfall in staff, particularly looking at other industries to see what best practices can be emulated.
The business is also looking at ways of protecting itself against the threat of avian influenza. “It’s a huge threat for our industry, on a global scale. It’s also why we’ve invested so heavily in our facilities, particularly biosecurity.”
Lavery adds that another challenge comes from the “competitive” retail market. “UK retailing and manufacturing is highly competitive and we have to continually challenge ourselves to innovate and stand out from the crowd and that’s why we invest in this area.
“Our challenge is meeting consumer expectations about what value is, as well as addressing environment and sustainability concerns. They increasingly want healthy and convenient choices and our job is to provide those products. There is an immense effort behind the scenes to achieve this.”
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- Name: Ursula Lavery
- Job Title: Technical and R&D director – Europe
- Company: Moy Park
- Tenure at Company: 32 years
- Tenure in position: Five years
- Number of employees: 12,000
- Turnover: £1.5bn (2017), up 8% on 2016