What's in your chicken? Wendy on new brining rules

What's in your chicken? Wendy on new brining rules

Up to now the producers of those frozen chicken portions have had carte blanche to inject as much brine into them as technology will allow, super sizing them before freezing and selling in those 2kg or 1.8kg bags. 

Chick brining - Consumerwatch
Consumerwatch, Wendy Knowler

Brine content is usually between 25 and 30%, which is why those pieces are so huge - until they are cooked, of course, and most the salty water seeps out.

Brine levels weren’t an issue for consumers until 2012 when the new food labeling regulations forced the industry to declare the actual percentage of brine on the front of their packs.

So, for the first time, the packs started declaring, for example, 72% chicken, 28% brine.

And suddenly there was an outcry: “What? We’re paying chicken prices for salt water than comes out when we cook the chicken?” 

And we were. And still are.

But from October, the producers won’t be able to be quite as liberal with brine anymore.

On Friday Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Senzeni Zokwana finally gazetted the brining limit: 10% for whole birds, and 15% for pieces, effective from October.

As for why frozen chicken pieces need to be injected with brine in the first place, the SA Poultry Association says brining is done for three reasons - to restore “the meat functionality” which is  lost during freezing,  to improve the taste and succulence - and to make the product more affordable.

But why as much as 25% of the chicken weight?

Interestingly, a study conducted recently by Maphuti Kutu of Tshwane University of Technology on the effects of different levels of chicken brining injection found that the injection of 5 to 10% of brine improved the succulence and flavour of the chicken but that there was no justification for higher levels.

So, the SA National Consumer Union, while saying it’s delighted that there is finally a brining limit in place,  says it will be pressing for further reductions in permissible brining levels in future.

On the other hand, the SA Poultry Association, representing the industry, says the brining limit will render chicken unaffordable for many of the poor, shrink the local poultry sector, play into the hands of importers and increase unemployment. And they will be contesting it.

Not all the big players are against a 15% brining cap, by the way - Rainbow Chickens came out in support 15% brine cap for pieces when it was proposed more than a year ago.

So, all in all, it’s going to be really interesting to see what effect this brining cap has on the market - the product is huge: 60% of all chicken sold in SA retail outlets is frozen chicken pieces.

Apart from the cost, there’s a health issue - the brine makes the chicken very salty, a taste which millions of consumers have got used to, but some have argued the high salt level puts their health at risk.

But will consumers take to the taste of chicken with about half the brine? 

Chicken brining - Consumerwatch
Wendy Knowler

Is it really 100% fruit juice?

Speaking of taste and health, another story making news this week concerns orange juice.

Did you know that inside that carton of juice which features large images of oranges, the word “Orange” and “100%" actually only contains 50% orange juice? And “reconstituted” from frozen concentrate, at that?

Dr Cindy Hunlun, who did the first investigative study of its kind in South Africa on the content and health value of locally produced orange juice, for which she was awarded a doctorate in Food Science Stellenbosch University last month, is recommending a change in  legislation in order to protect consumers.


Most orange juice sold in South Africa is made from concentrate which is frozen and then sold to juice producers. Cindy found that it has far less health value than a glass of freshly squeezed juice - lower phenolic levels and fewer anti-oxidants. 

Plus, orange juice made from frozen concentrate is further diluted by the addition of other fruit juices, hence the description on most South African orange juice packs, “100% fruit juice blend”.

The formulation of juice is determined by Department of Agriculture legislation, which allows for juice of a specific fruit type such as orange to be diluted by up to 50% with other fruit  juices - typically apple, pear or grape or a combination - and be sold being described as, for example, Orange “100% juice blend”.

“In the process, however, this drink loses many of the healthy characteristics which consumers assume are part of the juice made from a specific kind of fruit,” Cindy says.

“Many juice formulations only include the minimum amount of orange juice allowed by law - 50% - possibly due to cost as well as the high acidity of citrus.

“So to make it sweeter they add other fruit juices,” Cindy said. “My recommendation would be to increase the minimum percentage of the named fruit to perhaps 80%.

That would be great, but I’m not holding my breath. 

So much for pumping water into chicken and diluting fruit juice with other flavours, there’s another way producers keep their input costs down: they make pack sizes smaller, just a little bit, in the hope that consumers won’t notice. 

I have a very long growing list of products - most recently Nestle ice-cream tubs, from 2 litres to 1.8. 

It’s called shrinkflation, and as with chicken brining, the manufacturers say it’s done to make the products “more affordable” to consumers.

What it really means is you’re paying the same but getting less.

Gram for gram the product is actually more expensive.

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