New chicken row brewing in SA

Cape Town - Following the concessions on US imports to South Africa in January this year, another chicken storm is brewing as local poultry producers face harsh punishment if they fail to comply with new brine limits.

The poultry industry has six months to adjust to new maximum levels of brine, a fluid, which according to the industry, is injected into chicken and other meat products to retain succulence and flavour.

The long anticipated amendment, which was announced in January 2014, was published in the Government Gazette in April.

What the new rules say

According to the new regulations the total brine injection allowed for whole carcasses is limited to a maximum of 10%, up from the previously prescribed 8%.

However, the total brine allowed for individual portions of fresh and frozen poultry has been capped at 15%. No limit was previously prescribed.

Poultry producers have come under criticism for injecting brine into chicken, which increases the perceived volume purchased by unsuspecting consumers.

The new rules, therefore state the product name must also include a true description of the added formulated solution. [e.g. "chicken with brine based mixture", "sweet 'n sour marinated chicken drumsticks", etc.]

In addition, producers will have to regularly perform tests to ensure compliance with the new water uptake and injection limits, and must keep records thereof for at least one year for auditing purposes.  

These amendments will be phased in over a period of 6 months to allow for producers to adjust the levels of brine injection and to bring the labelling of these products in line with the new requirements.

No compliance, no sale

"Poultry products found not compliant with the regulations will not be allowed to be offered for sale in South Africa," warned Bomikazi Molapo, spokesperson for Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, Senzeni Zokwana.

She told Fin24 that the new regulation will bring about greater transparency and fair balanced trade.

"Currently, the level of brine injected into individual [portions of] quick frozen meat is not set or regulated, and that distorts the playing field in terms of trade."

Molapo noted that the Agricultural Product Standards Act 119 of 1990 is concerned with quality of the product being sold. Related to this, she said, is the issue of product integrity which involves the compositional properties of the product.

"Labelling on the packages is only important to the extent that the compositional properties and integrity of the product is not compromised."

Referring to brine levels in the individual portions, Molapo said there was broad consensus on reducing brine levels. However, the South Africa Poultry Association (Sapa) was the only participant that did not support the new limit.

She said consumers will get more value for their money in that the product will be less diluted.

Chicken prices set to rise?

However, Sapa CEO Kevin Lovell warned in a statement the new regulations will make chicken unaffordable for poor consumers.

He said Sapa will contest the amendments which it described as an assault on the industry and consumers. He added that it will also lead to job losses in the sector.

“These regulations will simply heighten our attractiveness as an export destination for the chicken pieces the developed world doesn’t eat, and our ability to feed ourselves as a country through sustainable and secure food production will be reduced.

"Given the economic crisis facing South Africa today, these regulations symbolise the beginning of a major contraction in our industry at a time when the country cannot afford contraction in any industry," Lovell said.

The Association of Meat Importers and Exporters of SA (Amie), who has long been pushing for zero-brine levels, welcomed the gazetting of the new amendments.

"We are thrilled that common sense has prevailed and publication finally effected," Amie CEO David Wolpert told Fin24. "It is a victory for the consumer."

The Agoa dispute

South Africa recently faced suspension from the US African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa) if it did not allow the import and sale of US meat products according to benchmarks set by President Barack Obama.

The deal included that US bone-in chicken pieces can be sold in South Africa without anti-dumping duties.

By conceding South Africa retained preferential access for its farming goods to the US, the world’s biggest market. Agoa favours 39 African nations by eliminating import levies on more than 7 000 products ranging from textiles to manufactured items.

The government published regulations in December allowing for an annual quota of 65 000 metric tons of poultry from the US.

The first shipment arrived at the port of Durban on February 19, according to Bloomberg.

Industry experts expressed concern that the Agoa deal forced South Africa to lower health testing standards applied to these US imports compared to all other imported and local products.

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