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Chicken Rip-off: How Salt Injection Solution (Brining) Makes it Appealing

Every day, more than 2.7 million chickens are eaten in South Africa — more than 1 billion a year — making it the most popular and lowest-co...

Every day, more than 2.7 million chickens are eaten in South Africa — more than 1 billion a year — making it the most popular and lowest-cost animal protein money can buy.

But shoppers are having the feathers pulled over their eyes when it comes to the R39 billion per year poultry industry. Chickens are big business in SA.

The vast majority of these chickens, 90 percent, are sold in the form of individually quick-frozen portions, such as drumsticks, thighs and wings, in retailers like Shoprite, Pick n Pay and Spar.

If “brining” sounds like a complicated procedure, it’s not: it is simply injecting a salt-water solution with flavourants into the chickens before they’re frozen, ostensibly to make them look plumper.

Walk along the frozen-food aisles of Shoprite, for example, and you’ll see Rainbow frozen chicken or Astral’s Tender n Tasty Goldi chicken — both with only 70% chicken and 30% brine, going for around R30/kg.
Salt Injection (Brining) Process 

Most shoppers don’t know they’re not getting all they’re paying for — a situation made worse by cynical marketers, who have tried to muddy the waters by slapping the label “moisture-enhanced” on the brined chickens.

But is there any need for brining in the first place? Or is it simply a device used by chicken producers, who’re under siege from a flood of imports, to protect their margins?

The answer depends largely on who you speak to. Critics say it’s a cynical device used by producers, like the JSE-listed Sovereign Foods and Astral, to plump up their profits and protect themselves from a flood of overseas imports.

On the other side, the producers claim that brine is both a “tenderiser” and “flavour enhancer” that provides a distinct taste and tenderness to chicken pieces. Brining, they say, replaces the moisture lost through the freezing process.

Maphuti Kutu, of the Tshwane University of Technology, conducted research that found that injecting small quantities of brine — between only 5% and 10% — improved the succulence and flavour of chicken.

There is no scientific justification for the much higher levels of brining we see in SA chicken. This is why some countries, like Brazil, have banned brining entirely. Others limit brining to 8% of the chicken’s weight — nearly a quarter of the standard for SA chicken.

From October, new regulations will come into force, imposing a cap of 15% brine on individually quick-frozen portions of chicken and 10% on whole chickens. Intuitively, it may seem good for consumers, but the industry is up in arms — and has gone to court to stop it happening.

The SA Poultry Association — a 112-year-old organisation populated by the industry establishment, including Astral and Quantum Foods — says the new rules will make chicken “unaffordable” for the poor.

Kevin Lovell, the CEO of the association, says the new rules on brining will be a body blow for the sector, causing unemployment to spike in an industry already battling to compete with imports from other countries. Lovell says government simply ignored the industry’s views on the beneficial effects of brining.

“Besides the potentially devastating results on local poultry production and the jobs that depend on it‚ this constitutes an assault on the poor of SA who will now find the price of individually quick frozen chicken unaffordable,” he says

That’s self-serving bunkum, says David Wolpert, the CEO of the Association of Meat Importers & Exporters of SA.

“Brining has resulted in the local poultry industry plumping up their profits by exploiting consumers with up to 40% salt water,” Wolpert says. If anything, he argues, government (through the department of agriculture, forestry & fisheries) has followed international best practice, taking a stand for “fairness, integrity and common sense” in curbing brining.

And while the poultry producers are frantically spinning the story that consumers will be hurt by these new rules, the opposite is true. “The new regulations protect consumers’ pockets and, according to many experts, their health.

The poultry association’s claim that this would render chicken unaffordable for the poor and shrink the local poultry sector is breathtaking in its utter gall,” Wolpert says. He doesn’t beat around the bush, adding: “People want chicken for their chicken. Saltwater and spin doesn’t feed a family.” There is an important context to the brining debate, however.

SA’s poultry industry has sold the story to the public that it’s teetering on the brink of collapse, and that without being allowed to brine chickens to bulk up their per kilogram weight, its sustainability is at risk.

Chicken imports are growing rapidly, as countries with dismal economies (like Brazil) have sought to dump loads of chickens into receptive markets like SA.

Chris Schutte, CEO of SA’s biggest chicken producer, Astral Foods, says the problem of dumping arose because customers in some countries only want the breast meat. This means poultry producers in those countries seek to dump the other parts, like drumsticks and chicken feet, in countries where there is a market at knockdown prices.

Schutte says more than 7.7m birds were imported into SA each week over the past six months. That’s about 40% of SA’s total production of 19m birds a week. But it comes after a particularly bruising 2015, when poultry imports shot up 21.6% to 478,447t. Imports rose 13% this May from April and by an astounding 44% year on year.

The main source is Brazil, which accounts for 43% of all poultry brought into SA, followed by the Netherlands (17%), and the UK (10%). The other 30% comes from the US, Argentina, Spain, Ireland and other European Union countries.

Schutte says the steep rise in imports means Astral has to introduce “more severe” production cutbacks to manage the oversupply. “The impact of the planned production cutbacks will unfortunately negatively affect the labour force due to the reduction in hours to be worked,” he says.

The impact is devastating: some SA poultry producers are already shutting their doors, or going into business rescue. Add to the mix the severe drought that ripped through the country over the past year and it paints a desolate picture.

The drought meant the price of yellow maize, which is about half the cost of feeding a chicken, has doubled within the past year. Considering that chicken feed is about 65% of the cost of rearing a chicken, it was a severe bodyblow.

Faced with these headwinds, it’s no surprise Astral’s share price shed 25% in the past year, RCL Foods lost 16% and Quantum Foods 9%. Sovereign, facing internal corporate governance upheavals, gained 9%.

Scott Pitman, MD of RCL’s consumer division, says imports of frozen poultry continue to grow exponentially, despite the rand having weakened by more than 50% over the past seven years, tariffs being imposed on non-EU imports and anti-dumping measures on some EU countries.

Pitman warns, alarmingly, that the SA chicken industry may not be able to survive in its current form for more than eight to 12 months. “Certainly, the 100 000-plus people employed in the chicken industry — and the dependent maize growing industry — have a lot to lose if a swift and firm solution is not reached very soon,” he says.

Amid this industry meltdown, the poultry industry understandably appears to be pulling out every trick in the book to protect itself. This includes spinning the story that imported chicken is “inferior”.

Says Wolpert: “The SA Poultry Association continuously and hysterically attempts to discredit imported chickens as waste, knowing full well that imported chicken quality is far superior to the local equivalent that is literally swimming in water.”

What is clear is that SA can expect even more chicken imports. This includes a likely 65,000t of frozen chicken from the US. But Breitenbach says the new brining rules will lead to a 15% rise in the cost of frozen chicken pieces. Wolpert agrees that this will be so ultimately, but says producers won’t necessarily have to take a hit as a result.

“All that is required is smaller packs with current chicken levels and less water.” The SA National Consumer Union says the only purpose of brining is to make consumers believe they are buying a cheaper product. It’s an effect you can replicate by simply marinating chicken, they point out.

It all comes down to one issue: is SA’s chicken market sufficiently competitive to survive without gimmicks like brining? To many, the answer is no: high food costs, escalating electricity costs and a crowded market mean the cost of producing a chicken is too high.

Of course it isn’t that simple. But cutting out brining is one way to bring a new level of honesty into these discussions. - Financial Mail 

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