REWE Group Sustainability Report 2015/2016
  • Passionately and
    courageously changing the industry

Fuelling innovation in the farming sector is the job of Dr Ludger Breloh at REWE Group. The agricultural economist oversaw the area Green Products for eight years. He was responsible for expanding the more sustainable product ranges of REWE Group. Last year, he assumed leadership of the new Department of Strategy and Innovation in the Agricultural Sector. This area sets the pace in efforts to identify innovations, enhance them where necessary and introduce them into everyday business operations with the aim of making food production more sustainable.

Mr Breloh, why does a trade company like REWE Group get involved in agricultural innovations?

We at REWE Group want to change our supply chains and create sustainable added value in the process. Regardless of whether you are talking about the need to make social and/or environmental changes in supply chains, we have learned that we have to start with the agricultural sector. Of course, we can also focus on improvements in downstream areas. But when you look at the entire life cycle of all foods, you see that the challenges generally arise in the cultivation and production of raw materials. This is true for a large number of agricultural raw materials, including cocoa, coffee, palm oil and, in particular, the husbandry and management systems for farm animals. This work focuses on such key questions as: How is animal welfare addressed? How are the animals fed?

I have made this area a priority of our work. I did so for one simple reason: A very high percentage of our store-brand foods at REWE Group uses farm animals, things like milk and dairy products, meat and sausage products, eggs and all of those things made with them.

45 million

One major problem in the egg-production business is the fact that more than 45 million male chicks are slaughtered each year in Germany because they have no economic value. We plan to solve this problem by using the SELEGGT process for in-egg chick sexing.

What is the job of the Department of Strategy and Innovations in the Agricultural Sector?

We are a centre of expertise that takes the lead when it comes to developing measures and evaluating existing programmes that are capable of making the supply chains used in food production more sustainable. This means that we will consciously focus on measures that may not be so fully developed because they are, for instance, in an early stage of scientific work. We are really a type of think tank that lays a foundation for the Department of Sustainability Product that will take the ultimate decision on implementing the ideas that we have developed or suggested.

How do you find innovations?

During my long career, I have learned where the hot spots – that is, social and/or environmental problem areas – can be found in our supply chains and know which areas are being explored by industry and university researchers. My job is to check whether particular research activities exist and, if so, which ones. These activities should have a good chance of producing measures and innovations that could lead to added sustainable value in critical supply chains at a later time. For this reason, I keep in touch with a very large number of universities and researchers. We try to develop ideas ourselves or to identify existing innovative approaches that have not yet been fully developed. Or we try to introduce fundamental research into a practical model – as we are doing, for instance, with the SELEGGT process for in-egg chick sexing.

In egg production, male chicks are usually slaughtered shortly after hatching. In response, you are using an in-egg process to determine the sex of chicks. How did this come about?

About 45 million male chicks are slaughtered each year in Germany because the animals do not have any economic value – they do not lay eggs and are not suitable for fattening purposes because their genetic make-up is designed for the laying qualities of hens and not fattening. There had to be a solution for this. If we really want to find a broad-range solution to chick culling, we need a practical solution that facilitates in-egg chick sexing. We then looked into research involving the process of in-egg chick sexing. A key researcher in this area is Professor Einspanier of the University of Leipzig. She has developed a process that can be used to identify the sex of a chick in the egg on the ninth day of incubation. This is possible because sex-specific hormones in the egg have formed by this point. During this process of endocrinologic chick sexing, a small drop of fluid is removed from the egg with an injection needle. The fluid is then combined with a newly developed marker. The marker then produces a colour reaction that identifies the sex of the chick in the egg. This process is about 98 per cent accurate. Eggs that the SELEGGT process has determined to contain a female chick are immediately returned to the hatchery and allowed to hatch. The eggs containing male chicks can be sorted out and processed into high-quality protein feed. In this manner, the SELEGGT process eliminates the culling of day-old male chicks.

What was the impetus behind the SELEGGT joint venture?

The goal that we set for ourselves was to turn the fundamental research done by Professor Einspanier into a practical solution. A university cannot afford to take on such a task by itself. You also need companies that have the financial and organisational resources to turn fundamental research into practical business models. For this reason, we teamed up with a Dutch technology company and formed the joint venture called SELEGGT GmbH. There is something visionary about it all. A trade company develops an innovative process technology with the aim of creating a practical solution from it. As a result, we can really help to bring about a true paradigm shift and strategic change in egg production. The SELEGGT process will certainly be tested in the supply chains of REWE Group and introduced as soon as possible. Should this process prove itself, the entire industry will be able to use it because we want to put an end to the culling of chicks throughout the entire sector.

When will the first eggs for which the SELEGGT process was used to determine the sex of chicks be sold in stores?

We introduced our prototype 1.0 in July 2017. It is about 97 per cent accurate in determining the sex of chicks. But it is too slow, and we need mid-range technologies that we will enable us to very quickly determine the sex of large numbers of eggs. We are now refining our process solution. We have developed a second, faster prototype that will be subjected to a stress test at the end of 2017. As you can see, we are moving forward. My goal is to have our process ready for use at the end of 2018. Starting in 2019, we can then have the first laying hens whose sex was determined by a SELEGGT process that eliminated the need to cull male chicks after hatching. Beginning most likely in mid-2019, we will be able to sell the first fresh eggs of these hens in our stores.

REWE Group’s philosophy of sustainability also involves developing new standards and processes and then making them available to the entire industry. This effort includes things like the certification process for hazel nuts that we co-developed. Working with UTZ Certified in Holland, REWE Group devised a sustainability certification system for the cultivation of hazelnuts. Today, all market players can purchase UTZ-certified hazelnuts. The chick-sexing process will also be made available to as many users as possible.

You are also tackling lesser known challenges in poultry farming. Which ones?

As a result of the high demand for eggs and poultry meat, you need a tremendous number of day-old chicks – for use either as laying hens or broilers. Chicks hatch after about 21 or 22 days in the hatchery. But there is a time interval of about 30 hours, the so-called hatch window, that is involved in the process: This period of time describes the interval between the hatching of the first chick and last chick of a particular hatcher because the eggs come from a large number of hens and begin incubation under different conditions. This means that some chicks have to wait up to 30 hours in the hatcher basket until it is opened and the animals are transported to a farm. In other words, a long period of time passes before they get their first water and feed. Some animals are already dehydrated by this time and have already lost more than 10 per cent of their weight – and you have to remember that a chick weighs less than 50 grams. As a result, they occasionally begin their lives in a weakened, less vital state.

Does an early-feeding process, among other things, create better conditions in the incubation process?

Definitely. We wanted a solution that could prevent the chicks that hatched first from enduring 30 hours of stress and eliminate the threat to their health. Early-feeding processes enable the animals to get fresh water and feed directly in the hatcher basket. As a result, all animals start their lives at the same level of development and are more vital and stronger when they arrive at farms.

The positive effects of early feeding have been repeatedly demonstrated in a series of academic studies conducted ad the University of Wageningen in the Netherlands, among other things.

The results led to a decision to convert the first hatchery, an operation in the eastern German state of Saxony-Anhalt, to the early-feeding process at the beginning of 2017. A second, newly built hatchery that uses the early-feeding process was opened in the western German state of North Rhine-Westphalia in the summer of 2017. This approach has created the conditions that will enable REWE Group’s need for day-old chicks to be gradually converted to the new hatching process.

The first chicks began to be hatched in the spring of 2017, and we have had some very good experiences with early-feeding process. The chicks get enough water and feed beginning in the first hour of their lives. They are more vital, and have very good biological indicators. The farmers with whom we work have confirmed this. They now want to have only these chicks. Furthermore, the mortality rate of early-feeding chicks has declined. A lower mortality rate shows that we are doing a lot of things correctly. REWE Group is now doing everything it can to ensure that at the beginning of 2018 broiler production primarily uses day-old chicks produced by hatcheries that use the early-feeding process.

REWE and PENNY are the first users of the early-feeding hatching process. Six key factors improve the animal welfare and the living conditions for day-old chicks.

You really throw yourself into your projects. Where does this passion come from?

I grew up on a farm and remain a passionate farmer. I am passionate about all farm animals. I have always wanted animal husbandry and management systems to meet the increasing requirements of society. I am always really very enthusiastic and interested when it comes to keeping track of market changes and innovations and working with them.

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