As the chief executive of Wiesenhof, Germany’s largest poultry producer, Peter Wesjohann is proud of his company’s financial performance and its ongoing efforts to be more hygienic and humane in its treatment of animals.
But the secretive firm, part of the PHW Group, has been hit by several scandals accusing it of mistreating and abusing poultry. Mr. Wesjohann, the third generation of his family to lead the company, is still a target for animal rights activists and receives plenty of hate mail.
He discussed the future in an interview at the company’s headquarters in Visbeck, north-west Germany.
Handelsblatt: When was the last time you were threatened?
Peter Wesjohann: Menacing letters have become an everyday occurrence. It’s almost routine when a group of animal-rights advocates blocks our entrance, as happened again a few days ago.
Many meat barons prefer to keep a low profile because of public indignation. . .
. . . for which I have a certain understanding. I, too, have received mail that included a bullet. At that point, the fun and games are over, even for me. But, unfortunately, a severe and long-ignored process of alienation has developed between the food sector and the population. Agriculture has become heavily industrialized and customers no longer look at it so fondly. But the farming idyll in the picture books of our childhood was, in many aspects, not particularly desirable.
Your industry just issued a sort of “Poultry Charter” that seeks to impose stricter standards. Wiesenhof is cooperating in the project. What can such industry commitments accomplish better than laws?
It’s difficult to put legally decreed changes into immediate effect on a European level. Against this background, I am in favor of all voluntary initiatives that develop alternatives until laws come into effect.
Animal rights advocates from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals once filed a series of legal complaints against Wiesenhof after undercover members filmed cruelty to animals. What has changed since then?
Those were lamentable individual cases that, unfortunately, cannot be entirely prevented with 6,000 employees and 1,000 independent farmers. Nothing remained of those criminal complaints, which are easy to submit. But the principle applies, especially to us: Anyone who is cruel to animals has got to go. We don’t accept that.
For a time, supermarket chains and McDonald’s did not order your products.
In response, we made public our entire production chain including all the monitoring. In this respect, the collaboration with McDonald’s is better than ever before.
Nevertheless, there is widespread indignation. The issues are not just cruelty to animals, but also low wages for workers, false advertising, some cases of high levels of nitrates, fear of resistant bacteria and on and on. Where is criticism justified?
Each of these issues is quite complex. But animal husbandry is a process that is continuously developing, just like the entire industry. Thirty or 40 years ago, close to half of all chickens died while being raised. Today, in our modern stalls, the losses average between 2 and 3 percent.
That still means a lot of dead chickens.
And, of course, we are attempting to improve that further, but those are figures that apply to the best organic farms as well. Today, our hatcheries are so hygienic that in an emergency, I would prefer to be operated on there rather than in a German hospital. Evolution is necessary, revolution impossible. It would even be dangerous for the animal world.
Overly strict regulations designed to protect animals could make it easier for foreign providers operating under far fewer laws and regulations to do business here. Already, much of the cheap meat comes into Germany from less-regulated places such as Thailand, Brazil or eastern European countries.
But Wiesenhof also makes purchases there. . .
. . . but exclusively for convenience products from the freezer. Whenever the label says “Wiesenhof,” German meat is inside. In comparison to other E.U. states, and especially to countries overseas, we already have extremely high standards.
How do hygiene conditions differ from those in the United States?
The situation takes some getting used to. For example, no effort at all is made to monitor salmonella. An attempt is made at the end to solve the problem with chlorine, but it doesn’t really succeed [chicken carcasses are often dipped in chlorine antimicrobial baths in the United States, a practice banned in the European Union because of concerns over cancer].
Do Germany’s provisions for animal protection distort competition?
What we need are European-wide regulations, but that’s hard to achieve because many individual countries end up pursuing their own interests and supporting their respective industries.
So, are you also against the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership free trade agreement with the United States?
Whereas we invest countless millions of euros each year in hygiene, the Americans don’t do anything. Their laws permit a salmonella presence of 30 percent after the application of chlorine.
So you are on the side of the food lobby group Foodwatch, even as the German food industry tries to laugh off concerns about chlorinated U.S. chickens flooding Europe under TTIP?
We are talking about an unequal competition that we would have to engage in with the Americans. If there are seen to be advantages in other industries, here consumer protection would have to be sacrificed. Otherwise, there are only two possibilities: The meat business must be excluded from the TTIP negotiations, especially since the chlorine treatment isn’t even allowed in Europe, or the standards must be adapted.
Would you like to lower yours?
No, not at all. The goal is to maintain the level that has been achieved. In many aspects, we have been pioneers. And today, it feels like we are the most frequently monitored meat company in the world. I consider this to be an asset.
How many animals does Wiesenhof slaughter each day?
About one million every day.
Conditions are better for a small percentage than for the rest. What does your “Privathof” product line do differently?
The chickens are a slow-growing species and have, among other things, one-third more space, a winter garden and bales of straw.
What share do they make up in the overall business?
Up to now, 2 to 3 percent in Germany, about 160,000 animals per week.
That’s not a lot.
It’s still a small segment, but it is growing. And if consumers call for it, we will immediately make a complete change.
Are you saying at the same time that consumers continue to want to keep things cheap?
I don’t intend to scold consumers, but the fact is “Privathof” chickens are 30 to 40 percent more expensive. There is a segment of people who simply couldn’t afford them. And the rest might be able to pay for them, but have other priorities. For example, the French spend 20 percent of their income on food and drink, while Germans spend only about 10 percent. Those are two different lifestyles. I don’t want to judge one or the other.
When will an end be reached in the breeding-, price- and efficiency-spiral in the poultry industry?
If you compare our business with the breeding of pigs or cattle, we are amazingly resource-oriented and efficient. Today, 1,600 grams of feed brings a kilogram of chicken meat. Since the cost of feed is 70 percent – and the largest factor driving up expenses – chicken now can be produced far less expensively than other meats. So, in terms of breeding, there is not much more to be achieved.
In terms of animal welfare. Today, breeding aims at more stable animals.
But it is often said, for example, that at a certain point turkeys simply topple forward because of their heavy breasts.
That hasn’t been the case for a long time. I’m willing to invite anyone to come and see our fattening units. But in breeding, you can’t simply flip a switch and create a new animal. It sometimes takes four to six years to make an improvement. Everything has advantages and disadvantages. For example, an animal that takes longer to grow requires significantly more feed.
Why are turkeys a difficult business?
It’s not in terms of the death rate, but the use of antibiotics is higher. Nonetheless, in the last 18 months we have been able to achieve a further reduction of 30 percent. Among the chickens at Wiesenhof, more than half are already free of antibiotics. But one thing is clear: When animals are sick, they have a right to be treated. Anything else would violate the laws on animal protection. Antibiotics are administered only after a veterinary inspection and a resistance test.
Amazingly, your sales are increasing at a stable rate despite all the debates.
Yes, adjusted for the varying price of feed, they do increase. We are now consolidated at €2.3 billion ($2.6 billion) in revenues.
So the world isn’t eating less meat?
That’s definitely true worldwide, but in Germany, meat consumption is declining only slightly. Only the use of poultry is rising slightly. In comparison to the rest of Europe, we’re four to five kilos below the average. Worldwide, however, meat consumption will rise significantly. Poultry will play the biggest role. But we will barely benefit from this, because worldwide, we are not competitive.
What chances do you have on the global market?
None at all.
Where do you see your target market?
In the European Union. Here, we are especially active in the area of fresh products, where hygiene, service and delivery times play a large role. That can’t be achieved when the product is coming from South America. In the future, we will continue to serve and expand this market segment. For the world market, at best, there are individual products, such as chicken feet for Hong Kong. But in principle that is. . .
A waste product?
What you call a waste product is a delicacy for the Chinese. When a chicken is slaughtered, nothing is thrown away. For us, nothing is a waste product. Almost all the side-products – blood, feathers, bones – are utilized. They are protein-rich energy-providers as pre-products for fertilizer, animal and fish feed. In comparison with other companies, we cut a good figure in terms of sustainability, but that message doesn’t get through the words “factory farming” and reach the public.
For that reason, too, more and more Germans are turning away from meat consumption.
Everyone should eat as they see fit. I am not a moralizer, who tells people what they should eat, and I have nothing against vegetarians.
The sausage producer Rügenwalder is enjoying success with its vegan products. What is your evaluation of your competitor?
That’s a good company. Its vegan products are not entirely unsuccessful. It remains to be seen whether the trend persists over the long term. But I do believe the niche will grow. So, it is important to pay attention to this market segment. We did this at the same time as Rügenwalder, but they made it to the market quicker than we did. Still, our goal also was to bring vegan products on the market.
So, you are starting up in the vegetarian and vegan market, too?
Of course. There is demand for them. We are free of ideology.
Why are meat companies so active there? That seems like the fox in the henhouse.
We already produce many convenience products and have the know-how regarding preparation. Why shouldn’t I use that expertise if the demand for vegetarian or vegan foods is large enough?
What will you be marketing?
We are starting with a vegan pork sausage.
Vegan pork sausage?
It sounds funny, I know, but you have to call it a pork sausage so people recognize it. I can’t call the product “tofu clump.” Almost no one would buy it. Then there will be other sausage products on a vegan basis. And in the frozen foods area schnitzels and snacks.
What are your expectations for this business?
I see a potential of 3 to 5 percent in the sausage market. The media are currently giving lots of coverage to the subject, but there have been many trendy health products that subsequently disappeared.
It sounds like you harbor some skepticism.
Christoph Kapalschinski covers consumer goods, textiles and food for Handelsblatt. Thomas Tuma is an associate editor in chief. To contact the authors: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com