Consumers are being duped when they buy chicken because they are actually paying for salty water, according to experts.
The South African National Consumer Union (Sancu) is pushing for less brine to be used in chicken pieces, despite new legislation being passed to cap brine levels, that's according to an investigation byFin24.
The department of agriculture, forestry and fisheries announced in January amended regulation, slashing brine levels by half.
The poultry industry has a year to adjust to the maximum brine limit of 15% by weight in individually quick frozen (IQF) chicken portions.
Brine is injected into chicken and other meat products to retain succulence and flavour. "With lower levels of brining, consumers will find that their chicken goes further once cooked," deputy Sancu chairperson Clif Johnston told Fin24. He said brine should be capped at 8%, adding that some frozen cuts of chicken are currently sold with up to 30% brine.
"Consumers are in effect paying for salty water at the price of chicken".
He said the amount of brine is usually indicated on the packaging in very small print, but most consumers who purchase this product are unaware of this.
Professor Hettie Schonfeldt from the University of Pretoria told Fin24 that injecting brine into a raw product increases the perceived volume purchased.
"When brine injected portions are cooked, the large portions often shrink to a much smaller sizes as most of the brine solution cooks out of the meat".
She said brine dilutes the nutrients and adds hidden salt of which the consumer may not be aware of.
"In my opinion it is against both the Consumer Protection Act as it misleads consumers and against the labelling regulations set forth in R.146."
Schonfeldt also pointed out that there are two main health concerns surrounding brine injections. These are dilution of the product and an increase of salt content.
"Adding a water solution to a product increases weight of the product, but provides no other additional nutrients and in fact dilutes the amount of nutrients such as energy, protein and others per gram of product.
“The consumer thus pays for water."
She added that consumers should also note that brine solution contains water and salt. Brine therefore could result in a double dose of salt - from the added brine and again from the cooking process.
"The South African Department of Health has recently published the new regulations related to the reduction of sodium content in foods due to the health risks associated with the excessive consumption of salt (sodium)."
The SA Poultry Association (Sapa), however, brushed off concerns of elevated salt levels.
"There is no way to claim that brining chicken leads to people eating more salt than they normally would," Sapa CEO Kevin Lovell told Fin24.
He added though that the industry was already working on reducing the salt levels of their products and has made some inroads which are continuing.
"This is to satisfy the consumer expectation that we will help them to reduce their overall salt consumption levels."
Kevin said that the new regulation may force poultry producers to make products that consumers don't want.
He said the association found that local brined product was consistently preferred by consumers over the un-brined imported product, according to blind tasting trials by an auditing firm.
"We currently make what people want. These regulations might force us to make products that people do not want as much as they currently do."
Kevin also dismissed claims of abusing consumers through its brining practice, but he added that improved labelling could help consumers make more informed choices.
"What it says on the pack must also be what is in the pack."
The Association of Meat Importers and Exporters of SA (Amie) said that imports will also have to comply with the same regulations as the locally produced product.
Amie CEO David Wolpert told Fin24 that total chicken brining volumes in South Africa exceed 500 million litres per annum, which is more than double the volume of total chicken imports into SA each year.
"This is indeed a frightening amount of salt water that is injected into local chicken.
"The days of local chicken being represented by bulbous, botoxed and ugly pieces of highly injected products are coming to an end," Wolpert said.
He said the real losers are poor consumer who believes they are buying chicken, but in reality is buying watered down chicken.
The best way to assist consumers is to stop brining altogether, suggested Wolpert.