Where does the need to ensure that frozen chicken portions are moist when cooked, end, and company greed begin?
That’s been the crux of the individually quick frozen (IQF) chicken portion debate which has played in South Africa since 2010 when unscrupulous producers were found to be injecting their chicken with up to 50 percent brine.
It’s a major issue because the product is massive in South Africa, and so is the potential for consumer exploitation in the absence of a legal brining limit.
A 2kg bag of IQF chicken pieces is among the most powerful retail items to supermarket groups, because IQF chicken is a mass-market staple, accounting for 60 percent of all chicken sold in this country. So consumers monitor the product’s price and tend to “chase” specials.
The industry argues that brining – injecting chicken portions with brine, which is essentially a solution of water and salt, before quick freezing them – prevents them from ending up dry and tough on the plate.
Critics, including the government, are of the view that excessive brining has taken place in order to exploit consumers into believing they’re getting more chicken than they really are, given that this is a product sold by weight, and injected water seeps out of the chicken during the cooking process, leaving the pieces radically smaller than they were in the bag: water that was essentially sold at the per-kilogram price of chicken.
Those cooked pieces end up being a lot saltier than nonmanipulated chicken, which is a separate, health-related issue.
Up to now the percentage of added brine has not been regulated, and while the main players have been brining at bet-ween 25 and 30 percent, some have been plumping up their chicken pieces with far more than that.
Consumers were blissfully unaware of how much water was being added to their frozen chicken – that is until new food-labelling regulations which came into effect in 2012 compelled manufacturers to declare the percentage of added brine on the front of those packs.
Then the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries began suggesting that the legal brining of IQF chicken should be a single digit figure, which got the industry in a flap.
The figure it has now settled on is 15 percent, the industry was told last week.
And the companies have a year to adjust their brine levels – in most cases that means halving them.
And the product will have to be described on the pack as “chicken mixed portions with a brine-based mixture”.
Last April, Phil Tozer, sales and marketing executive for Astral Food’s poultry division, a major player in the poultry industry (Country Fair, Festive, Goldi, Supa Star, Mountain Valley) said the industry was hoping the government would settle on a “brine cap” of no less than 20 percent.
Below that, he said, prices would go up to the extent that it would no longer be a “value proposition” to the masses.
Last week Astral’s chief executive Chris Schutte said the company had found “certain technical flaws” in the proposed brining regulation, which it would take up with the government.
And while the company supported the regulation and monitoring of brining, he said, it believed the 85:15 ratio for chicken portions was “not appropriate” and would have “a detrimental impact on the price and affordability of IQF products”.
The regulation should be challenged by the industry, he said.
Rainbow, meanwhile, has come out in support of the government’s 15 percent brine cap.
“Capping the maximum moisture that can be added ensures that consumers will still get the best added value benefits that brine offers, while preventing this being abused,” said Rainbow’s marketing director, Jason Livesey.
Asked about the impact on price, Livesey said: “It is important to realise that reducing the brine percentage will reduce the weight of a piece of chicken, but won’t reduce any chicken.
“So, a packet of IQF will weigh less by the amount of brine reduction, but the consumer will still get the 10 or so pieces she would have got in that 2kg packet, but it will now weigh less.”
It was likely that a new package size would emerge, he said, with the same number of pieces, only slightly smaller, having been injected with less brine, he said.
In other words, it will take this product a lot closer to “what you see in the packet is what you get on your plate”.