Support for proposed cap on brine solution injected into frozen chicken portions

2015-10-01 06:00

BULK frozen chicken pieces are the most consumed chicken products in the country and are marketed and perceived by consumers as cheaper than fresh chicken.

But when comparing prices of individually quick frozen (IQF) chicken portions and fresh chicken gram for gram it’s clear this may not always be so as two recent snap surveys found.

Injecting chicken with a brine solution is a practice the poultry industry has performed for many years and which it argues enables it to improve the succulence of chicken and provide a value for money product.

While there is currently no legal limit to the practice although the government has proposed a 15% cap, producers must declare the percentage of added brine solution on packs in terms of labelling regulations, so consumers can see how much brine — usually 29% water and one percent brine solution (salt and flavourings) — has been added to chicken.

This means that after the 30% brine solution has defrosted or cooked away, a two-kilogram and a 1,5-kg pack of chicken deflates to 1,4 kg and 1,05 kg respectively.

But there doesn’t seem to be a justification for such high levels of brining.

Maphuti Kutu of the Tshwane University of Technology presented research at a SA Association for Food Science and Technology conference recently, which found that the injection of five to 10% brine improved the flavour and succulence of chicken but there was no justification for higher levels.

“Un-injected chicken breasts obtained from birds sold commercially in South Africa are still very tender,” Kutu said.

But back to pricing. SA National Consumer Union vice-chairperson Clif Johnston did an informal survey in Gauteng at supermarkets and found that bulk frozen chicken packs were not always cheaper than fresh chicken, once the watery brine solution had been deducted from the mass.

Here’s what he found:

At Checkers the price range for fresh chicken was R36,99-R37,99 compared to R28,43-R43,80 for frozen.

At Pick n Pay the price of fresh whole chicken — there was no other fresh chicken available — was R35,00 per kg versus a price range of R32,86-R37,86 for frozen portions.

I did my own survey in KZN, which confirmed that frozen chicken was not always cheaper. Unfortunately, it was almost impossible to compare frozen portion products with the same fresh portions as similar packs were not always available.

Pick n Pay’s no-name fresh drumsticks and thighs packs and its braai pack portions, on promotion, were R34 and R35 per kg respectively, substantially cheaper than its own brands of frozen drumsticks at R42,85 per kg and frozen braai cuts at R43,80 per kg. However, Goldi frozen mixed portions at R39,28 per kilogram was fractionally cheaper than fresh mixed portions at R39,99.

At Checkers, the picture was different as fresh chicken prices ranged from R34,99 (for a whole chicken) to a whopping R79,99 for a Farmer Brown fresh chicken braai pack. Rainbow drumsticks were cheaper frozen at R46,66 compared to their fresh counterparts at R52,99.

Given the difficulty of comparing prices it would be useful if a “per kilogram” price, excluding brine, could be reflected on packs enabling consumers to check prices at a glance.

Pick n Pay spokesperson Tamra Veley said prices varied with promotions and consumers should check unit prices before buying.

“The ingredient declaration lists all ingredients in descending order of ingoing mass. It is also clearly marked on the front of the packaging the percentages of chicken and brine based mixture that is used,” she said.

Shoprite Checkers spokesperson Sarita Van Wyk said poultry producers were best placed to comment on pricing.

Astral Poultry division managing director Theo Delport said 85% of chicken sold in South Africa was frozen, while brined IQF mixed portions accounted for 60% of the market.

“Frozen chicken is far more affordable than fresh. On promotion the price of IQF chicken portions is often used to draw consumers to the stores. Retailers take very low, or no margin on this product,” he said.

He said fresh chicken prices had increased in line with inflation.

Delport said regulation of brining was necessary.

“The practice of brining at current levels has enriched the South African diet, not weakened it, by making protein more affordable for poorer South Africans as reflected in per capita consumption figures,” he said.

RCL Foods spokesperson Stephen Heath said producers did not set retail prices but these were influenced by supply and demand dynamics

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