Previous Page Table of Contents Next Page


Chapter 1 INTRODUCTION AND BACKGROUND


World production and trade
Historical background
World production
International trade
Rabbit meat quality

World production and trade

Best known for being prolific, rabbits are also herbivores which efficiently convert fodder to food. The whole point of meat production is to convert plant proteins of little or no use to people as food into high-value animal protein.

In efficient production systems, rabbits can turn 20 percent of the proteins they eat into edible meat. Comparable figures for other species are 22 to 23 percent for broiler chickens, 16 to 18 percent for pigs and 8 to 12 percent for beef.

A similar calculation for the energy cost of these proteins is even more unfavourable to ruminants, as shown in Table 1. When cattle or sheep are raised for meat production, most of the energy consumed by the herd or flock is used to maintain breeding females which have a low prolificacy: a maximum of 0.8 to 1.4 young per year against 40 for female rabbits. Even with the theoretical lower energy cost when cattle are raised for both milk and beef, rabbit meat is still more economical in terms of feed energy than beef. Rabbit meat production is therefore an attractive proposition, especially when the aim is to produce quality animal protein.

Rabbits can also easily convert the available proteins in cellulose-rich plants, whereas it is not economical to feed these to chickens and turkeys - the only animals with higher energy and protein efficiency. The traditional grain and soycakes fed to these domestic poultry put them in direct competition with humans for food. For countries with no cereal surpluses, rabbit meat production is thus especially interesting.

Historical background

A little history

The domestication of the major livestock species (cattle, sheep, pigs) and the small species (poultry) is lost in the dawn of prehistory. But rabbit domestication dates back no further than the present millenium.

Indeed, the wild rabbit Oryctolagus cuniculus of southern Europe and North Africa is thought to have been discovered by Phoenicians when they reached the shores of Spain about 1000 BC. In Roman times the rabbit was still emblematic of Spain. The Romans apparently spread the rabbit throughout the Roman Empire as a game animal. Like the Spaniards of that time, they ate foetuses or newborn rabbits, which they called laurices.

Rabbits had still not been domesticated, but Varron (116 to 27 BC) suggested that rabbits be kept in leporaria, stone-walled pens or parks, with hares and other wild species for hunting. These leporaria were the origin of the warrens or game parks that subsequently developed in the Middle Ages. It is known that monks were in the habit of eating laurices during Lent as they were considered "an aquatic dish" (sic). In France, it became the sole right of the lord of the manor to keep warrens. Rabbits were hunted little, and were captured with snares, nooses or nets.

Several breeds of rabbit were known in the sixteenth century and this is the first indication of controlled breeding. Domestication can therefore be traced to the late Middle Ages. This was probably mainly the work of monks, since it provided them with a more delectable dish than the tougher wild rabbit.

TABLE 1 Average performance of different animal species and energy cost of proteins they produce

During the sixteenth century breeding seems to have spread across France, Italy, Flanders and England. In 1595, Agricola mentioned the existence of grey-brown (wild), white, black, piebald (black and white) and ash-grey rabbits. In 1606, Olivier de Serres classified three types of rabbit: the wild rabbit, the semi-wild or "warren" rabbit raised inside walls or ditches, and the domesticated or hutch-bred rabbit. The meat of the last is described as insipid and that of the wild or semi-wild type as delicate.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, after the abolition of seigneurial privileges, rabbit rearing in hutches sprang up all over rural western Europe and also in city suburbs. European colonial expansion saw the introduction of the rabbit in many countries where it was unknown, such as Australia and New Zealand.

In Europe, breeders usually had a few does and a stock of fattening animals, from which they took according to their needs, as from a larder. The animals were fed mainly on green forage picked daily. In winter the breeders supplemented forage with hay, beetroots and even grains, often from stocks intended for large livestock. Rabbits were kept in the backyard, with the poultry. Reproduction was extensive (two or three litters a year).

From that time on there is frequent mention of the fur as a by-product (the breed now called Argenté de Champagne was described as "rich"), and the already long-existing Angora mutant was recorded.

From backyard to rational production

Beginning in the late nineteenth century and picking up speed in the twentieth, hutch rearing led to a rabbit population explosion made possible by the selection, protection and multiplication of breeds and mutants unadapted to the wild. Breeders formed associations. Breeding techniques were rationalized and hutch hygiene improved.

Breeding standards were laid down: each adult breeding animal was raised in a separate hutch because rabbits kept in a confined space became aggressive. Young rabbits for fattening were left together, but in this case the males were castrated. Feeding was the same as in the previous century, green fodder and grains, but the first feeding trials produced certain guidelines. The Second World War saw the extensive development of rabbit production throughout Europe and Japan to cope with meat shortages. Under these demanding conditions, rabbits demonstrated their highly efficient feed-conversion capacity.

In the 1950s, production slumped in Japan and the northern European countries as other meats with more flavour became available, such as frozen beef from the Southern Hemisphere. But in the Latin countries of Europe where people know how to cook rabbit, particularly in France, rabbits were still produced. In the late 1950s, New Zealand rabbits, wire-mesh cages and balanced pelleted feeds were all introduced into France and Italy from the United States. At the same time, diseases hitherto unknown and apparently linked with the new production techniques (mucoid enteritis and respiratory ailments) appeared and others disappeared (cenuriasis) or tapered off (coccidiosis).

These new techniques, originally better adapted to the climate of California than to that of northern Italy or France, demanded many modifications in production which were often discovered by trial and error. The hutches especially, which had always been kept outside, were put in closed buildings. Ventilation and lighting problems had to be solved.

The time spent on cleaning cages and collecting food was reduced abruptly. This freed breeders to spend more time on the animals themselves. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the work of authors such as Prud'hon et al. (1969) led to a sharp drop in weaning age, from eight to four weeks. Postkindling matings replaced postweaning matings. Breeders were able to put into practice Hammond and Marshall's early observations (1925) about postkindling fertilization of does because feeds were so much improved as to obviate the danger of abortion in lactating pregnant does through malnutrition.

At the same time came the explosion of the New Zealand White rabbit and its offshoot, the Californian rabbit. The traditional European breeds (Fauve de Bourgogne, Argenté de Champagne, French Belier) underwent a regression. As adults it is difficult for these breeds to live on the mesh floors of the cages - the pads of their paws not being adapted like those of the New Zealand White and Californian rabbits.

French and Italian breeders worked to improve substantially the first New Zealand White and Californian rabbits imported from the United States. In France, the two breeds were combined to produce specialized hybrid strains according to the design conceived by the French National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA). In the late 1970s, these strains crossed the French border to Italy, Spain, Belgium and the Federal Republic of Germany where, in large commercial production units, they tended to supplant the traditional breeds. Other hybrid strains were produced at the same time, especially in Hungary and the United Kingdom, but in almost every case the new strains were bred from these original two breeds.

Traditional varicoloured rabbits have been gradually replaced by white rabbits. This is having a considerable impact on the market for skins. Before the 1970s, furriers tended to favour the easy-to-dye white skins. Today the reverse is true - white skins are too common. At the same time, improved production techniques have lowered the slaughter age of rabbits in Europe which has reduced the value of the fur. The hair of the skins is "loose" because the animals are too young.

Production trends in France since the 1950s are given in Table 2. Industrial rabbit production (specialists prefer the word "rational" to industrial, as the breeder's expertise is still very important) in Europe today is typically in units of 200 to 1 000 hybrid does reared in buildings with artificial or controlled ventilation. The breeding females are under artificial lighting for 15 to 16 hours a day and produce all through the year. All animals are reared in one- to four-storey mesh cages (flat-deck and battery). Male and female breeding animals are raised in cages in groups of five to ten (France and Spain) or one to three (Italy). Young males are not castrated because they are sold for slaughter before or just at puberty. All the animals are fed exclusively with balanced pelleted feed. Drinking water is automatically distributed to every cage.

TABLE 2 Production trends in France from 1950 to 1990 in the most productive rabbitries

Criteria

1950

1960

1970

1980

1990

Rabbits produced (sold) per breeding doe

20-25

30

45

60

65

Average interval between litters (days)

90-100

70

54

42

40

Concentrate feed necessary to produce 1 kg live rabbit (kg)

(*)

6

4.5

3.6

3.3

Type of rabbit

Common, of no specific breed

Pure breeds

Pure-bred does crossed with improver buck

Specialized hybrid strains

Specialized hybrid strains

Working hours per doe per year (hours)

16

16

10

7.5

6.0

Labour used to produce 1 kg carcass (minutes)

27

22

9.5

6.2

4.3

Number of breeding does in breeding units

80-100

100-150

200-250

350-400 up to 1 000

600-4000

Percentage of investment in retail price of rabbit (%)

<3

5-8

12-15

18-20

18-20

* Rabbits were not fed concentrates at this date.

At the same time there is a sizeable increase in private (sophisticated buildings and breeding installations) and producer-group investments (technical advisers). Typically, rational production consists of a very quick succession of all phases of the reproduction cycle. This demands extremely close and time-consuming supervision by the breeder. The technical adviser, not being directly involved in these day-to-day tasks, is of great assistance in the medium-and long-term running of a unit. His/her salary and ancillary costs amount to a sizeable investment for a group of producers (1 to 3 percent of the sale price of a rabbit).

In many countries of Eastern and Western Europe (e.g. Poland, Hungary, France, Italy and Belgium), a more traditional production system, very similar to that of the first 40 or 50 years of this century, still contributes a considerable part of the national output: over 90 percent in Hungary and nearly 40 percent in France. These traditional units are usually very small, with two to 12 breeding females.

World production

National statistics do not generally include rabbit production, but a few available basic statistics allowed Lebas and Colin (1992) to estimate a world output of roughly 1.2 million carcasses. A more recent estimate (1994) by the same authors, including almost all countries in the world, suggests a possible 1.5 million tonnes. This would mean a per caput annual consumption of roughly 280 g of rabbit meat; a theoretical figure in that most inhabitants in a great many countries consume no rabbit meat whatsoever against the 10 kg/year consumed by French farmers and 15 kg/year per caput in Naples, Italy. Europe is indeed the centre of world rabbit production (Figure 1). The foremost world producers, far surpassing all other countries, are Italy, the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) countries (particularly Russia and the Ukraine), France, China and Spain (Table 3). In all, Europe accounts for 75 percent of world production. China is second, specifically certain central Chinese provinces such as Szechuan. Production areas are also found in some regions of Africa, Central America and Southeast Asia, particularly Indonesia. Rabbits are not reared in most countries of the Near East. Table 4 gives some indication of per caput consumption.

European trends, 1960 to 1980

Rabbit production in Italy was still traditional in the early 1970s. However, faced with as strong a demand for the product in the industrialized north as in the more traditional south, production units mushroomed between 1975 and 1990. The greatest concentration and largest rabbitries are found in the Venice area, but production is also substantial throughout the country.

TABLE 3 Major rabbit-producing countries in 1990*

Country

Estimated production (carcass weight)

Country

Estimated production (carcass weight)

Thousands of tonnes

Thousands of tonnes

Italy

300

Portugal

20

CIS (former USSR)

250

Morocco

20

France

150

Thailand

18

China

120

Viet Nam

18

Spain

100

Philippines

18

Indonesia

50

Romania

16

Nigeria

50

Mexico

15

United States

35

Egypt

15

Germany

30

Brazil

12

Czechoslovakia (former)

30



Poland

25

Total 22 major producers

1311

Belgium

24

Other countries

205

Hungary

23

Total estimated world production

1516

* Countries producing more than 10 000 tonnes.
Sources: Lebas and Colin, 1992; Colin and Lebas, 1994.

FIGURE 1 Estimate of annual production of rabbit carcasses in different countries (dead weight in thousands of tonnes)

Database

Countries producing 100 000 tonnes or more

China
CIS (former USSR)
France
Italy
Spain

Countries producing 20 000 to 99 000 tonnes

Belgium
Czech Republic
Germany
Hungary
Indonesia
Morocco
Nigeria
Poland
Portugal
United States of America

Countries producing 5 000 to 19 000 tonnes

Algeria
Brazil
Colombia
Denmark
Egypt
Ghana
Greece
India
Malaysia
Mexico
Netherlands
Philippines
Romania
Slovakia
Sri Lanka
Thailand
United Kingdom
Venezuela
Viet Nam
Yugoslavia (former)

Countries producing 1 000 to 4 900 tonnes

Albania
Angola
Argentina
Bangladesh
Bolivia
Bulgaria
Burundi
Canada
Chile
Côte d'Ivoire
Democratic People's Republic of Korea Democratic Republic of the Congo (former Zaire)
Ecuador
Estonia
Ireland
Japan
Jordan
Kenya
Latvia
Libyan Arab Jamahiriya
Lithuania
Malta
Mozambique
Myanmar
Nepal
Pakistan
Peru
Puerto Rico
Republic of Korea
Rwanda
South Africa
Sudan
Switzerland
Syrian Arab Republic
Tunisia
Turkey
Uruguay
Zambia
Zimbabwe

Countries producing less than 1 000 tonnes

All other countries

TABLE 4 Estimated annual consumption of rabbit meat by country (in kg per inhabitant)

Country

Weight

Malta

8.89

Italy

5.71

Cyprus

4.37

France

2.76

Belgium

2.73

Spain

2.61

Portugal

1.94

Czechoslovakia (former)

1.72

CIS (former USSR)

0.75

Morocco

0.78

Slovenia

0.77

Greece

0.70

Romania

0.64

Netherlands

0.63

Malaysia

0.50

Poland

0.50

Tunisia

0.48

Nigeria

0.45

Germany

0.44

Bulgaria

0.39

Ghana

0.32

Thailand

0.31

Venezuela

0.30

Philippines

0.29

Egypt

0.27

Indonesia

0.27

Algeria

0.27

Viet Nam

0.27

Syrian Arab Republic

0.25

Colombia

0.24

Canada

0.23

Jamaica

0.20

Mexico

0.18

United States

0.14

Argentina

0.12

South Africa

0.11

Hungary

0.10

Brazil

0.08

China

0.07

Benin

0.04

Democratic Republic of the Congo (former Zaire)

0.04

Japan

0.03

Source: Lebas and Colin, 1992: Colin and Lebas, 1994.

Global production rose from roughly 120 000 tonnes in about 1975 to nearly 300 000 tonnes in 1990.

The situation in France is somewhat different. Output stabilized at about 275 000 tonnes a year from 1965 to 1972, then slumped abruptly and now stands at roughly 150 000 tonnes. This situation is in line with the rapid drop in the number of very small producers who consumed much of their own production but who, because there were so many of them, supplied an appreciable share of the rabbits marketed. During the same period many newly established rational units of 50 to 500 did not only close the small-scale producer gap, but also managed to increase slightly the tonnage of rabbits marketed, which rose from 80 000 to 90 000 tonnes in the years 1960 to 1965 to 100 000-110 000 tonnes at present. A considerable research effort aimed at improving production techniques was responsible for this increase.

The traditional production sector in Spain produced little during the 1960s. The many rational units that were opened from 1970 onwards led to a spectacular leap in the output and marketing of rabbit meat. The present total is 100 000 tonnes. Production models were transposed directly from France.

Lagging about 15 years behind Spain, Portugal developed rational production incorporating the progress made in French, Italian and Spanish rabbitries. Portugal, with an annual per caput carcass output of 2 kg, is on a par with Belgium for volume of production: 24 000 tonnes per year.

Rabbit meat production and consumption in other Western European countries are still low. However, there seems to be a slight upturn in Germany, where breeders are being encouraged to increase their output. There is a large number of fancy breeders in Germany who raise a few pedigree animals as a hobby and also eat a small proportion of the rabbits produced for this purpose. Production and consumption in Sweden and Norway are very low. Rabbit breeding is still a tradition in Denmark, although the national output, once mostly exported to Germany, has now dropped.

Hungary stands out among Eastern European countries. This predominantly agricultural country encourages family-scale rabbit production with five to 20 does. At the same time, the large production complexes with 10 000 to 15 000 breeding females established in the 1970s and 1980s have been abandoned because of management problems. They have been downsized and serve primarily to supply selected breeders for small-scale operations. The young fattened animals produced on family farms are collected and almost all exported to Italy. In the early 1970s exports to Italy consisted mainly of live animals. The rabbits were slaughtered in the Milan area. Most rabbits from Hungary are now exported as fresh carcasses. In Poland, small family rabbitries (five to 20 breeding females) are still the rule. The rabbits produced are expected to provide good-quality meat as well as fur for marketing. Therefore they are usually slaughtered late (four to six months) for better skin quality. Some animals are collected as in Hungary, but exported as frozen carcasses (generally heavy). The sizeable Czechoslovakian production is mainly for national consumption but, as in Germany, there are many (80 000-90 000) fancy breeders raising a few pedigree rabbits as a hobby.

North and South America

Rabbit production and consumption in the United States are concentrated primarily in the three Pacific States and in the southern States of Missouri and Arkansas. A frequent estimate of national output is 15 000 to 17 000 tonnes, but an updated review by Colin (1993) suggests the figure may be as high as 35 000 tonnes. Young rabbits of approximately 1.8 kg live weight are eaten as "fryers". On the east coast there is virtually no market and the only rabbits are pets.

Rabbit production in Canada is modest, mainly concentrated in the provinces of Quebec and Ontario, where it is subsidized by the provincial governments. The slaughtered carcasses are a little heavier than in the United States.

In Mexico, the promotion of backyard rabbitries in rural and peri-urban areas has led to a total annual output of 10 000 tonnes, from these small units, producing mainly for home consumption, and commercial units combined. The latter are small (20 to 100 does) and use balanced concentrate feeds almost exclusively. The family units rely on forage (alfalfa, maize or sorghum stems) and kitchen wastes. This rabbitry, unfortunately decimated by viral haemorrhagic disease (VHD) in 1990, is now being rehabilitated.

In the Caribbean area, rabbit production is basically family style and forage-based.

The rabbits are often small local breeds descended from animals imported some tens or hundreds of years ago. However, notable efforts have been made in Cuba to develop improved breeds and use more intensive production methods. In Guadeloupe and Martinique in the French Antilles, intensive commercial production in small units of 25 to 100 does has grown side by side with traditional production in the last decade. This development is based on animals and concentrate feeds imported from France or produced locally. Performance is good: does produce 30 to 40 young a year and these are sold at 2.2 to 2.4 kg at about 80 days.

In South America the biggest producers are Brazil and Uruguay, in large commercial units with thousands of breeding females. The animals, generally raised extensively, are fed locally manufactured balanced concentrate feeds.

Asia

Rabbit production does not seem to have truly developed in Asia except in Indonesia and, particularly, China. The Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand, Viet Nam and the Republic of Korea also produce a small amount of rabbits. No official statistics are published in China on the production and consumption of rabbit meat and it is difficult to approach the question of production in a country of a thousand million inhabitants without official statistics. However, it does appear that rabbits for export (mainly to Europe) come from the nearly 20 million Angora rabbits produced. They are usually slaughtered very young, after the second or third clipping at most. Production is mixed: angora wool plus meat. Thus, financially, meat appears to be the byproduct and angora wool the main product, fetching 55 to 70 percent of the return for each animal. The animals are fed forage and a little grain and grain byproducts. Production units do not appear to be spread throughout China, but rather concentrated in certain villages. This enables better support facilities and facilitates the marketing of a product which remains, in principle, traditional. In other Chinese provinces, such as Szechuan, there is substantial production of meat rabbits intended primarily for local consumption. Part is, in any case, collected for export to hard-currency countries.

Africa

There is a tradition of rabbit production in the five Mediterranean countries of Africa. Per caput production varies from Egypt's 0.27 kg to Morocco's nearly 0.78 kg. The traditional production systems in the southern parts of these regions feature an original habitat where rabbits are group-reared in burrows dug into the earth.

In sub-Saharan Africa, the two main producers are Nigeria and Ghana and to a lesser extent the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Cameroon, Cote d'Ivoire and Benin.

There is commercial production in these countries, but most rabbitries are family-owned, with part of the output for market. The national rabbit production development programme in Ghana, for example, proposes a system where small family units keep only three to six breeding animals, so they can be fed on local products - forage, cassava, etc. - and produce surplus animals for sale.

International trade

The rabbit meat market

Few countries are involved in the international trade: the annual trade figure is over 1 000 tonnes of carcass equivalent. Only nine countries are exporters, only six are importers and eight are both.

The actual volume of international trade is quite small: 6 or 7 percent of world output, according to the data source in Table 5. A total of 23 countries account for 95 percent of the international trade (imports and exports alike), implying that rabbit meat production is generally for domestic consumption.

TABLE 5 Major rabbit meat importing and exporting countries (in millions of tonnes of carcass equivalent per year)

Country

Exports

Imports

Balance

Austria

0

1.0

- 1.0

Belgium

10.3

13.0

- 2.7

Canada

1.0

3.0

- 3.0

China

40.0

0

+ 40.0

Croatia

1.0

0

+ 1.0

Czechoslovakia (former)

3.0

0

+ 3.0

France

5.0

11.0

- 6.0

Germany

0

5.0

- 5.0

Hungary

22.7

0.7

+ 22.0

Italy

0.65

30.0

- 29.35

Japan

0

3.0

- 3.0

Mexico

0

3.0

- 3.0

Netherlands

3.75

3.70

+ 0.05

Poland

6.0

0

+ 6.0

Republic of Korea

0

1.2

- 1.2

Romania

1.0

0

+ 1.0

Serbia

1.5

0

+ 1.5

Singapore

0

1.0

- 1.0

Spain

0.5

2.5

- 2.0

Sri Lanka

0

1.0

- 1.0

Switzerland

0

5.0

- 5.0

United Kingdom

0.2

9.0

- 8.8

United States

2.0

3.0

- 1.0

Total

94.1

97.6


Total world trade

100

100


Source: Colin and Lebas, 1994.

The two biggest exporting countries are China (40 000 tonnes) and Hungary (23 700 tonnes). It is difficult to get a clear idea of Chinese exports for two reasons. First of all, interannual fluctuations in the volume of trade are great: Chinese exports to France in 1989 were 9 400 tonnes, but only 2 500 in 1991. This is partly because of true production fluctuations in China, e.g. resulting from the VHD epidemic, and partly because of storage potential and carryover, as Chinese rabbit meat is almost exclusively sold frozen. The second reason is that China sometimes exports directly to developing countries, making it very difficult to gather data.

In Hungary, all output is aimed at the export market: less than 5 percent is for domestic consumption. Hungary is an exception here: only Croatia is near with 50 percent of the national output exported.

The main buyers in order of importance are Italy, Belgium, France and a few other Western European countries: the United Kingdom, Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland. Other Eastern European countries also supply the above: the Czech Republic and Slovakia with 3 000 tonnes, Poland with 6 000 tonnes, Romania with 1 000 tonnes, and the former Yugoslavian countries of Croatia and Serbia.

The biggest importer in absolute terms is Italy, also apparently the prime consumer. The major Italian suppliers are Hungary, China, former Yugoslavia and sometimes Romania and Poland. Belgium is second, but with very strong export flows. France is the third importer in terms of quantity, importing from 4 000 to 12 000 tonnes depending on the year, mainly from the same suppliers as Italy, but with China in first place.

Imports for national consumption are largest in Switzerland with about 60 percent, which is partially explained by the very strict legislation on the conditions for production, resulting from the influence of the "eco-lobby". France is Switzerland's main supplier, followed by Hungary and China.

Some countries such as Belgium and France are both importers and exporters, with export prices generally topping import costs. France thus buys rabbits cheaply from China and sells rabbits at a much higher price to Switzerland. Likewise, Belgium, the Netherlands and even the United Kingdom import from China and the Eastern European countries, while exporting part of their own output to France. In a similar vein, the United States imports from China and exports to Canada. China exports all rabbit meat in frozen form, whereas the Eastern European countries export mainly fresh meat. Some live rabbits are also exported from the Netherlands to France or from the former Yugoslavian countries of Slovenia and Croatia to Italy.

The market for rabbit skins

Data on skin marketing are much scantier than for rabbit meat. France appears to be the main producer of raw skins, but the practice of reimportation after partial treatment rather complicates the figures. France uses 56 percent of the skins it produces, about 70 million.

About 60 percent of these are poor-quality skins from which only the hair is recovered (12 to 20 percent of dry pelt weight). The best-quality skins are used after tanning for garments (5 to 8 percent) and linings, gloves and so on.

Most other producers also market rabbit skins but the CIS and Poland, for example, apparently make domestic use of all the skins they produce. Australia must be considered a producer, as it exports the skins of wild rabbits killed in extermination campaigns (small skins).

The main importers of raw skins are developing countries such as the Republic of Korea and the Philippines, with the low-cost labour to do the dressing. After fairly complete processing, these skins are re-exported to developed countries such as the United States, Japan, Germany and Italy.

Angora wool

Used mainly in textiles, the wool of the Angora rabbit forms a special sector of the international wool trade. World production is modest but the value per unit of weight is high: 40 to 50 times that of greasy wool.

Europe's share of the ever-growing world output, now estimated at 8 000 to 10 000 tonnes, is at present about 250 to 300 tonnes a year. Production is mainly concentrated in the Czech Republic and Slovakia (80 to 120 tonnes a year), France (100 tonnes), Hungary (50 to 80 tonnes) and, to a lesser extent, Germany (30 to 40 tonnes). But tonnages have again fallen in recent years as a result of marketing problems. A small amount is also produced in the United Kingdom, Spain, Switzerland, Poland and Belgium. Elsewhere in the world, Chinese production is by far the highest in the world at 8 000 to 9 000 tonnes a year. Japan also has a small output of 50 to 60 tonnes. Small quantities are also produced in Argentina, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, the Republic of Korea and India.

There is brisk trading in both raw angora wool and the spun yam. The main end-users are Japan, the United States, Germany and, particularly, Italy. The trade is characterized by regular four-year cycles due not to production, which is in fact regular, but to fluctuations in demand dictated by fashion. Since 1985, however, world prices have remained at rock-bottom levels.

Rabbit meat quality

Carcass composition

Carcasses are presented in different ways in different countries. Traditionally in certain African countries rabbits for the market are simply bled and gutted (only abdominal white offals). This was also true of Italy only a few years ago.

In France until recently the carcasses were sold skinned, with the thoracic viscera, liver and kidneys, and the head and paws still covered with fur. This changed in 1980 and now the paws must be removed.

In Canada and the United Kingdom the carcasses are dressed much as beef carcasses: no head, no viscera and, of course, no paws. So slaughter yields can vary greatly from one country to another. Yields also vary among breeds (Table 6) and according to age (Table 7) and diet (Tables 8 and 9). Slaughter yield improves with age: for a given carcass weight, animals with a high growth rate, receiving more balanced feed, generally have a better carcass yield. Too much roughage in the diet tends to overdevelop the digestive tract and thereby lower yield. A fibre-rich feed that did not lower the speed of growth would not modify slaughter yield, however.

TABLE 6 Slaughter yields of different rabbit breeds and crosses at 10 to 12 weeks, in Belgium

Breeds and crosses

Live weight (kg)

Carcass yield

Proportion of rump (legs, back) to front portion

Dissectable fat (g)

Edible offals (liver, heart, kidneys) (g)

Old French presentation (%)

Ready to cook (%)

Blanc de Termonde (BT)

2.29

65.0

57.7

1.51/1

75

95

New Zealand White (NZ)

2.49

64.6

57.2

1.54/1

47

87

Californian (Calif.)

2.13

65.6

58.4

1.54/1

55

73

Bleu de Beveren (BB)

2.05

61.1

54.7

1.50/1

55

95

BT × NZ

2.33

62.7

55.9

1.62/1

90

87

BT × hybrid

2.26

63.2

55.7

1.56/1

43

95

Commercial hybrid

2.81

66.0

59.4

1.56/1

85

110

Calif. × BB

2.14

62.8

56.1

1.52/1

100

100

Source: Reyntens et al., 1970.

TABLE 7 Slaughter yield of New Zealand Whites, by age1


 

Age in weeks

9

11

13

15

Live weight at slaughter2 (kg)

1.70

2.12

2.47

2.67

Carcass weight (kg)

1.18

1.48

1.76

1.93

Slaughter yield (%)

69.2

69.8

71.6

72.1

1 Italian presentation with skin.
2 After 24-hour fast.
Source: Di Lella and Zicarelli, 1969.

TABLE 8 Effect of feed type on slaughter yield: role of supplementary bulk feed


Low-bulk feed

High bulk feed

Straw content (%)

0

20

Crude fibre content (%)

4

12

Presentation (choice)

alone

+ straw

alone

+ straw

Percentage of straw in free choice (% DM)

-

15.9

-

6.1

Live weight at 70 days (kg)

1.52

1.72

1.96

1.88

Carcass weight (kg)

0.94

1.0

1.20

1.14

Slaughter yield (%)

61.4

57.7

61.3

60.6

Source: Reyne and Salcedo-Miliani, 1981.

TABLE 9 Impact of balanced feed on slaughter yield of Fauve de Bourgogne rabbits1


Balanced feed

Alfalfa + maize2

Dehydrated alfalfa only

Age at 2.2 kg (days)

78

88

96

Conversion rate (DM)

3.92

4.80

6.90

Slaughter yield (%)

63.7

59.7

56.8

Fattening cost for 1 kg carcass (index)

100

89.8

123.9

1 Average live weight at slaughter 2.2 kg.
2 The ratio chosen by the animals was 36 percent maize and 64 percent dehydrated alfalfa.
Source: Lebas, 1969.

Meat composition

Compared with the meat of other species, rabbit meat is richer in proteins and certain vitamins and minerals. However, it has less fat, as shown in Table 10.

TABLE 10 Meat composition of different animal species Values given per 100 g of meat

TABLE 11 Proportion of the principal fatty acids in fat deposits of different animal species

Fatty acids

C14:0

C16:0

C16:1

C18:0

C18:1

C18:2

C18:3

Tallow (ruminants)

4

27

2

24

42

2.5

-

Fat (pigs)

1

27

3

12.5

45

8

0.5

Fat (poultry)

0.1

26

7

7

40

20

-

Fat (rabbits)

3.1

29

6

6.1

28

17.9

6.5

Source: Adrian, Legrand and Frangne, 1981; Ouhayoun et al., 1981.

Rabbit fat contains less stearic and oleic acids than other species and higher proportions of the essential polyunsaturated linolenic and linoleic fatty acids (Table 11).

The anatomical composition of the rabbit carcass varies with age. The proportion of muscle mass to body weight remains constant: over 2 kg live weight for a strain weighing 4 kg (adult animal). But the proportion of fatty tissue tends to increase. This ratio shows up in meat composition, as Table 12 shows.

TABLE 12 Changes in hindleg muscle tissue composition in New Zealand Whites, according to age


 

Age

30 days

70 days

182 days

Degree of maturity (% of adult weight)

17

55

100

Water

77.7

74.9

72.7

Proteins (N × 6.25)

18.2

20.2

21.3

Fats

2.8

3.7

4.8

Mineral salts

1.2

1.2

1.2

Source: Ouhayoun, 1974.

TABLE 13 Water losses from grilling rabbit meat, according to age and fat content


 

Age of rabbits

86 days

96 days

105 days

Carcass weight (kg)

1.40

1.54

1.63

Kidney fat (% carcass)

1.5

2.2

3.4

Loss from cooking hindleg (%)

30.9

27.6

27.3

Loss from cooking back (%)

34.1

30.9

30.8

Fat content


Leg (%)

4.8

4.9

6.0

Back (%)

1,5

1.7

1.6

Source: Fischer and Rudolph, 1979.

The proportion of oleic add in the fat also increases with age and palmitic add decreases.

Organoleptic properties

The organoleptic properties of rabbit meat, like those of other species, are tenderness, juiciness and flavour. Rabbit meat does not have a very strong flavour. It is comparable to, but not identical to, chicken.

Tenderness varies with muscle age and depends on changes in the proportion and type of conjunctive tissue supporting the muscle fibres. The younger the rabbits are slaughtered, the more tender the meat will be. On the other hand, flavour tends to develop with age. Although little research has been done on this, it is known that flavour improves with the quantity of internal fat in the muscle. In the same way, juiciness depends largely on the fat content of the carcass. The fatter the carcass the lower its water content, but the better it retains what juice it does have (Table 13).

Slaughter conditions, especially the onset of rigor mortis, can modify the tenderness and juiciness of rabbit carcasses.

Selection for growth rate combined with confined rearing favour the anaerobic metabolism of rabbit muscle tissue. Animals raised in rational rabbitries therefore have a higher portion of white muscle fibre, which gives the meat a lighter colour.

Customer appeal

In Latin countries, which are traditional rabbit consumers, customer appeal is no problem. Rabbit meat is even classified as "sought after" and is eaten on special occasions. However, it is less frequently served when a guest is invited to join the family at table. In Anglo-Saxon countries, rabbit meat is not a traditional food. It is thought of as wartime fare, conjuring up memories of food shortages. A century ago, however, tens of thousands of rabbits were imported every week from the Netherlands for the London market.

In other countries the situation varies greatly. Although the Koran in no way prohibits rabbit meat, production and consumption are virtually nil in most Arab countries. Yet rabbits are a traditional food in certain Maghreb countries such as Egypt and the Sudan.

In Mexico, people were not in the habit of eating rabbit meat until an advertising campaign boosted consumption. A reverse example is offered by Greece. A rational development programme of large-scale commercial production was implemented in mainland Greece in the late 1960s with relative success in technical terms. But marketing made no real headway as Greeks were not in the habit of eating this meat. There had been no advertising campaign to promote it so consumers did not buy it. Paradoxically, on the island of Crete, consumption is 10 kg per person per year.

The only religious bans concern the Hebrew religion (consumption in Israel outside the Arab population is nil) and certain Hindu sects (general ban on eating meat). Formerly, there was also a religious ban in force in Japan which forbade the eating of meat from four-legged animals. When rabbits were introduced into Japan in about 1350 by a Dutchman, the meat was sold as chicken. In modern Japan rabbit meat is eaten, although the total amount is still modest (1 000 tonnes from domestic production plus 3 000 tonnes imported from China).

In the 1981 INRA-FAO survey of 64 developing countries reporting on the development potential for rabbit production in their countries, 70 percent thought it feasible and 22 percent considered that social customs would not favour it. The remaining 8 percent were against it for religious or other reasons.

Rabbit meat consumption is much easier to develop where people are already used to eating widely different kinds of meat, as from hunting. This would be generally true of sub-Saharan Africa. People with monotonous diets will find it harder to accept this new product. However, the example of Mexico, with its traditional diet of maize and kidney beans, shows that a well-planned development campaign can do much to promote the necessary change in eating habits.


Previous Page Top of Page Next Page