26 Nov 2014

The Straits Times

SAKURA chicken - a commonly seen chilled chicken brand sold in major local supermarkets and wet markets - will be spreading its wings to more international marketplaces in the next three years.

This "designer" chicken, which boasts succulent meat and lower fat and cholesterol content, is the brainchild of Singapore's second largest poultry producer, the Kee Song Group.

Kee Song, which started business in 1987, has nine chicken farms in Yong Peng, Malaysia, and is publicly listed on Taiwan's securities market.

It produces 6.25 million chickens a year and is keen to make its presence known internationally for its stimulant- and medicine-free products, bred in a sustainable way.

What makes them "designer" is that Sakura chickens are bred using a Japanese farming technology in which chickens live in a temperature-controlled, clean environment with enough space for them to roam about while listening to Mozart.

The birds are fed with lactobacillus-infused feed and are free from antibiotics and growth hormones.

Kee Song came to know about this technology in 2005, when a Japanese professor came searching for chicken producers to test his lactobacillus strain that was to be added to the chicken feed.

Together, Kee Song and the professor embarked on experiments, importing the lactobacillus strains from Japan and testing them at its chicken farm in Yong Peng.

The company started with 5,000 birds and increased this progressively to 10,000 and, eventually, 50,000.

The results of the experiments were inconclusive after a year and the company wanted to discontinue the project.

However, the chairman of the Kee Song Group, Mr Ong Kee Song, who leads the group's research and development efforts, was adamant about persevering in the experiments as he saw it as a possible solution to the H5N1 epidemics.

Mr Ong Kian San, 49, the managing director of the Kee Song Group, says: "In our line of business, we are especially vulnerable to fowl-related epidemics. When the H5N1 attack hit us in 2004, chicken imports from Malaysia were frozen.

"Though our chickens were unaffected, we could not sell them and that greatly affected our sales.

"We persevered with our chairman's vision and our efforts have finally paid off.

"We are confident that in the wake of an epidemic, Kee Song will be able to provide disease-free and healthy chickens to consumers."

It took Kee Song close to two years and about RM5 million (S$1.9 million) to see the successful cultivation of the Sakura chicken.

This method of cultivation won the group the Merit for Innovation Award from Singapore Institute of Food Science and Technology from 2009 to 2011.

In 2007, Kee Song launched Sakura chicken in Singapore, but it was met initially with a lukewarm response.

The company then put effort into marketing and promotions to educate consumers on eating chicken that is free from growth hormones and antibiotics.

It has now gained a stable customer base. To date, Sakura chickens account for 30 per cent of Kee Song's overall sales.

Last year, Kee Song sought International Enterprise (IE) Singapore's help as it was keen to venture overseas by opening more sustainable farms and supplying new products to international markets.

IE has taken Kee Song representatives on a mission to Chongqing in China and introduced potential poultry-farming partners there to the company.

IE has also linked Kee Song with the Malaysian Investment Development Authority to gain access to investment incentives as it has plans to embark on egg production in Johor.

"As our business motto is healthy food, healthy living, it is important to collaborate with like-minded business partners who share the same values.

"IE's contacts and links have given us a bridge to viable businesses and investment incentives which are very helpful," says Mr Ong.

Last year, IE also supported Kee Song in a branding project through the Global Company Partnership scheme.

The company needed to strengthen its brand platform and identity to stand out competitively in local and overseas markets.

After nearly a year's work, it now has its products streamlined into three categories and a tagline - "Healthier food for healthier life" - was created to distinguish it from the competition.

With the stronger branding, Kee Song hopes to deepen its penetration in the Malaysia, Taiwan and Hong Kong markets by creating a strong awareness of its healthy products resulting from its sustainable farming methods.

It has also diversified its product range by turning chicken waste into organic fertiliser to grow vegetables.

By next month, it will be supplying about three tonnes of vegetables to local supermarkets weekly, says Mr Ong.

Kee Song's annual revenue is over S$50 million. It employs close to 460 staff in Singapore, Malaysia and Taiwan.

Mr Ong says: "We are gingerly making our presence felt in the world. Someday, we hope to see Kee Song's products being associated with sustainable farming and the company being recognised as a pioneer in this field."

Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission