Why brine injected into chicken is now capped at 15%

Ever wondered why when you cook a chicken breast it reduces in size by quite a dramatic margin? The reason behind this shrinkage is that your breast has been injected with brine. Not only does it act as a preservative but this sneaky tactic will also add more weight to the meat, thereby allowing retailers to charge the consumer more. But injecting meat with a lot of brine is now coming to an end thanks to improved laws.

It is estimated that the big players in the poultry industry have been injecting chicken with as much as 25 – 35 % brine. Allowing the pieces we buy to seem far bigger, something we only discover when it’s cooked and whittling away to half its frozen size. But owing to new industry regulation, a cap of 15% brine, has been put into place.

Known as individually quick frozen (IQF) chicken, it makes up about 60% of all chicken sold in retail outlets, and up to now the percentage of brine that was allowed to be added was not regulated.

Despite the High Court application from the South African Poultry Association (SAPA) asking that the cap be set aside, the court denied the application and ruled in favour of the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF).

The ruling was further supported by the Association of Meat and Importers and Exporters (AMIE) as they argued that the high brine levels found in meat, was unfair to the consumer. This due to the fact that they were paying more for less, as the brine inflated the weight of the chicken.

But the South African Poultry Association (Sapa) not pleased by these regulations, as their CEO Kevin Lovell, claims that brine is a useful additive to meat.

“Brining does at least three different things, which overlap, namely it makes the texture and succulence of frozen poultry similar to fresh poultry, it improves the taste and the general eating experience and thirdly it reduces the cost of the product.”

SAPA added that it was displeased about the way the court case was conducted.

“No specific declared reasoning was made available before or during the court process. DAFF admitted that they did not do any economic/ consumer research and the research which they said supported the texture/succulence levels did not do so. Neither was this research included in the court case,” stated Lovell.

How does this affect the consumer?

According to DAFF, AMIE and other regulatory bodies, the new regulation will see consumers getting better value for money when they purchase chicken as the  size of the meat will be a more accurate depiction and the weight will not be influenced by the high level brining.

SAPA on the other hand are of the opinion that the cap has no consumer benefit.

“What this decision does is make imports more price competitive than they already are and imports will now grow from the current high levels. On an annualized basis the total poultry imports are about 1 ¼ the size of Astral, the largest local producer. Since these mostly dumped imports are sold at prices similar to local products there is no consumer benefit,” states Lovell.

He further highlighted the potential job loss that could stem from this decision.

“The local industry will just shrink and as jobs will be lost there will be fewer consumers with disposable incomes. Most jobs in the industry are in the processing phase, then the farming phase and lastly the logistics phase, which is where imports compete for jobs. Obviously demand for maize, soya and some other grains will also fall, affecting the broader farming community,” Lovell adds.

How will this affect the cost of chicken?

While the regulation makers are certain that prices will remain fairly unchanged, SAPA foresees an increase in production costs.

‘On a per kilo basis it will increase the production cost by about 19% using 2015 data. The argument is that you could sell a smaller pack size for the same price. This argument has a major flaw in it – the consumer does not seem to think that 1,65kg is the same as 2kg, which was what the new pack sizes will have to be for pack size prices to be largely unchanged.

“Think also if you walk into a supermarket and see a 2kg bag of imported chicken next to a 1,65kg bag of local chicken at the same price. Which will you buy,” Lovell said.

Another point of contention was that of pack sizes as there is no subsequent requirement that the sizes of packs need to be reduced, and currently different companies subscribe to different size packages.

This, according to Lovell, will make it harder for consumers to compare products.

“We have done some consumer research and we know that the 2kg bag remains the familiar favourite. It is telling that even those companies that claim to support the 15% cap are currently not brining at these levels as everyone is concerned about consumer reactions post 22 October [this is when the cap comes into effect],” Lovell adds.

The health impact of brine 

Brine is salty water, and is commonly used to preserve various foods. With the high sodium levels and other spices that various food producers put into brine and then inject into meats, the argument that brine could be detrimental to our health has been made. With meat already having an element of salt within it, added sodium especially to those who suffer from conditions like hypertension, could prove harmful.

Lovell, however, argued: “The salt (or sodium to be precise) levels move from a World Health Organisation (WHO) low sodium classification to a medium sodium classification. This adds around 5% to the national sodium intake, which is not a huge number.”

Justmoney’s thoughts:

At the end of the day, consumers want to know that they are getting value for their money and that the meat they are feeding their families is of a good quality and not detrimental to their health.

With the regulation set to kick in on October 22, poultry producers, supermarkets and consumers alike will all have to deal with the adjustment.

But there is still some way to go because there are high levels of brine present in many other meat products, such as bacon and sausages. Should the new cap on chicken brining prove successful, maybe the DAFF should consider tackling those meat industries too.