Brine proposals could boost prices

A proposed amendment by the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) to the Agricultural Product Standards Act will reduce the content of brine in chicken to 4% of total mass.

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This move, if implemented, could push up the price of chicken by an estimated 20%. Dr Boitshoko Ntshabele, DAFF’s director for food safety and quality assurance, said the department was opening the matter to all stakeholders to determine what the maximum permissible amount should be.

“Legislation currently allows for whole chickens to pick up 4% water from the chilling process and 4% from additional brine injections. It is applicable only to whole chickens and we want to include coverage to portions. More importantly, we are opening this matter for public consultation with the whole of South Africa, he said. Some people are saying we should adopt zero tolerance and disallow this, as done by other countries.”

Brine, a salt solution, is injected into poultry on the justification that it enhances the flavour and succulence of frozen birds. However, detractors say it is a cheap way of adding weight to a product sold on weight. SA Poultry Association (SAPA) CEO Kevin Lovell said his organisation fully supported the need to regulate brine content. “However, the amount of brine a chicken portion can hold differs to that of a whole chicken. Those amounts are part of our negotiations with DAFF,” he said.

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Brine content in whole birds produced by South Africa’s major poultry producers is generally not more than 15% but for portions it can be 23% to 30%. Reducing the level of brine in whole birds would not noticeably affect the overall market, as whole birds constitute only 2% of the market.

“But it would have a dramatic effect on portions, which make up over half the chicken market. Chicken is the single biggest drawcard for South African retailers. It accounts for between 10% and 15% of food turnover. If brine content is reduced and the price goes up 10% to 20%, consumers will respond with their wallet.” Astral Foods CEO Chris Schutte said a 4% regulated injection level would substantially increase the retail cost to consumers.

“A change from 30% to 4% would result in an approximate additional cost per kilogram of R1,80/kg or nearly R4 per 2kg bag of individually quick frozen mixed portions.” Schutte said lower injection rates would yield a significantly drier and less flavoursome product, especially in breast meat. “Quick service restaurants are injecting at double digit rates to improve taste and succulence. Consumer acceptance, however, is likely to be dictated by the price of a low injection product.”

Poultry producer Zofia Collett, owner of The Shed chicken producer in Richmond Valley, was strongly against brine injections. “I have a hard time believing that it is done for the consumer’s benefit. Our bodies don’t need the extra salt. However, I can understand why processors do it. The costs of feed and inputs are very high.”

In terms of the Department of Health’s Regulation R146 of 2010, producers have to clearly state the chicken-brine split on the packaging. “Brined chicken has between a quarter to a half of the salt per 100g of standard bread. This makes brined chicken a medium salt level product, less than tomato soup, tuna and many other foodstuffs,” Lovell said.