US hits out at SA over 'botox' chicken

Georgia - It is shameful that South African poultry producers have for so long taken advantage of consumers by selling chicken with high levels of brine, said James Sumner, president of the USA Poultry and Egg Export Council (USAPEEC).

South Africa has introduced new regulations to limit brine, a fluid which, according to the industry, is injected into chicken and other meat products to retain succulence and flavour. This comes after poultry producers were heavily criticised for injecting brine into chicken to increase the perceived volume purchased by unsuspecting consumers.

Sumner, who is also the president of the International Poultry Council, said it is shocking that SA poultry producers have been injecting chicken with up to 40% of brine.

"I think it is really a shame that this has been going on for so long. It takes advantage of SA consumers by selling them water at the price of chicken," he said.

"We would never consider doing that. We are not allowed to by our government."

US not 100% brine-free

Sumner told Fin24 that US chicken is not 100% brine-free but it is "specified and labelled appropriately". However, he added that it would never be done at the same levels used in South Africa. "But I don't want to get into a name calling contest or anything."

Responding to this, SA Poultry Association (Sapa) CEO Kevin Lovell said the US does brine chicken since "the technology has its origins there".

He said the US, as is common within the European Union, uses brine when they make products for a specific customer. "These are part of what are called 'calibrated' products i.e. made to specification."

USAPEEC confirmed that specific customers such as fast food outlets do have requests to include brine. It said this is done to keep chicken fresh and for seasoning purposes, and not for a bigger yield.

Lovell said although imported chicken is often brine-free, consumers would not necessarily know if this is indeed the case.

"They wouldn't really know because there is no requirement by DAFF [the department of agriculture, fishing and forestry], and furthermore there is also no mechanism available to them, to have the brining status of imports certified," he claimed. "So what we think is true might not be true."

From October 22 brine injected for whole carcasses must be capped at 10%, up from the previously prescribed 8%. The total brine allowed for individual portions of fresh and frozen poultry is 15%. No limit was previously prescribed.

Last month the North Gauteng High Court refused Sapa’s request to review the new regulations and to suspend the 15% cap on brining altogether.

Lovell argued that an eight-week suspension should be effected to allow supermarkets to sell the stock of frozen chicken on their shelves that was produced before the lower cap was introduced. He said between R500m to R2bn of “safe, edible and nutritious food” will have to be destroyed rather than sold, in an industry already struggling to compete with internal players.

Food security and jobs 'under threat'

He warned that the industry would suffer a major contraction, threatening food security and jobs, with consumers also possibly facing higher prices.

High brining levels as practised in South Africa are nothing more than the commercial exploitation of consumers, said the Association of Meat Importers and Exporters of SA, which has long been pushing for zero-brine levels.

"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 after the new the new regulations were announced that they would 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," she said at the time.

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

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

* Fin24 attended a US farm-to-fork programme as a guest of the USA Poultry & Egg Export Council.

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