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An Industry Leader’s Provocative Words

Barbecue chicken baron Jean-Pierre Léger tells us what changes he would like to see


September 17, 2009
By By André Dumont

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One day, I’d like to tell clients at St-Hubert: these are the
conditions in which our chicken is raised and no antibiotics are used.”

One day, I’d like to tell clients at St-Hubert: these are the conditions in which our chicken is raised and no antibiotics are used.”

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Addressing Issues
St-Hubert president Jean-Pierre Léger wants to see the poultry industry change some practices to ensure consumer demands and perceptions are met.


 

Meet Jean-Pierre Léger, the president of Quebec’s St-Hubert barbecue chicken restaurants. He is one of the industry’s most vocal critics. He is also one of its biggest buyers: more than six million whole chickens and hundreds of thousands of kilos of prepared cuts are served every year in the 100-restaurant chain.

Chicken is just about the healthiest type of meat around, he says, but serious quality issues must be addressed. Under current breeding conditions, the less St-Hubert clients know about farm practices, the better it is.

“I find it unacceptable that through genetics and the use of antibiotics as growth factors, some farmers are now able to finish their chicken in as little as 35 days,” Léger told Canadian Poultry Magazine in an interview last summer.

42-day minimum
If you’re able to finish your chicken under 42 days, Léger’s best advice is not to brag about it, especially not to journalists.

The problem, according to Léger, is that in the race to lower costs and increase profits, producers have forgotten about quality. Taste has become the least of concerns. Producers don’t seem interested in producing tastier chicken by using other races and longer growth times.

The industry should impose on itself a minimum of 42 days of growth, Léger suggested.

For the past few years, Léger has been pushing to get antibiotic-free chicken. For now, all of his chicken supply comes from Quebec producers, but should they not rise to the antibiotic-free challenge, St-Hubert will turn to Ontario, where large-scale production has already started on a few sites.

Léger says that the use of antibiotics in animal feed probably has very little or no impact on antibiotic resistance in human beings. If antibiotics in human medicine don’t work as well as they should, it’s because doctors have been overprescribing them.

Farming practices may not be the problem, but in a world where the customer is always right, Léger prefers to be ahead of the times. “If we wait until our clients start pressuring us, it will be a little too late. It’s better if we start changing now, in order to do it in an orderly fashion.”

Provoking change has been on Léger’s agenda ever since he took over the restaurant chain his parents founded in 1951. In the early 1990s, Léger demanded air-cooled chicken and soon after, other restaurants, as well as supermarkets, turned away from water-soaked chicken.

St-Hubert was among the firsts to serve grain-fed chicken. Just like with air-cooled chicken, the restaurant chain accepted to pay a little more. Léger expects there will be a supplement for antibiotic-free chicken. Again, the trick will be to reflect these higher costs on the prices in the menu without scaring away customers.

Farmers that remove antibiotics from their feed will need to pay closer attention to their birds, Léger says. Overall costs will increase, but Léger believes antibiotic-free chicken could be marketed at a competitive price.

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Despite his concerns and his ideas to improve the poultry industry Leger is a happy and successful businessman.


 

Innovation
St-Hubert restaurants are an active member of a provincial committee of farmers, processors and buyers looking into the future of antibiotic-free production in Quebec. Olymel/Flamingo (La Coop fédérée), St-Hubert’s most important supplier, has been conducting tests, the results of which are very promising, Léger said.

If farmers operated in a more competitive market, we would probably see faster change and more innovation, Léger said. Supply management makes it comfortable for farmers to keep producing the same way, because they know they can’t lose market share to newcomers.

“There is no reason for chicken and milk production to be limited.” Léger said. “I don’t see why any Canadian would not have the liberty of starting a chicken farm.”

55 days
During his travels to France, Léger has seen chicken marketed with a “55 days” label. Other specialty poultry is sold with 84 days, or even 135 days proudly written on the label, along with the bird’s race. The current price of quota makes it impossible for someone to enter production to address such niche markets in Canada, Léger said.

Pricing non-issue
Léger knows his words on supply management are provocative. He says innovation and quality are what worries him most. Pricing is not the major issue. St-Hubert is not interested in importing cheaper chicken, Léger insists. “I have no problem with closing our borders to protect our farmers. It would be environmental nonsense for St-Hubert’s supply to come from the United States or from Brazil.”

Despite his concerns with farming practices and supply management, Léger says he is a happy businessman. His restaurant chain has been expanding rapidly, through the “St-Hubert Express” concept, which fits smaller markets. St-Hubert is now eyeing Ontario again, where only three restaurants (two in Ottawa, one in Cornwall) remain from earlier attempts to go west.