THE Association of Meat Importers and Exporters has laid a complaint against local poultry manufacturers for alleged non-compliance with brining and labelling regulations.

Whole chickens may have only 8% retained water and brine is only allowed to be injected to a maximum of 4% in breast meat.

Regulations do not set brine limits for chicken portions and brine levels can be as high as 40%. Brining adds weight and producers say it improves the texture and taste of meat.

An importer said: “We’ve laid a complaint at the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, and they have asked us to provide proof of the alleged contraventions, which we will do this week.”

The department is “very strict on enforcing regulations on imported meat, and we just want them to enforce regulations with the same vigour when it comes to locally produced poultry”,  he said.

The association said contraventions included injecting brine into legs and other parts and retained water in whole chickens.

The department is considering submissions on new regulations to limit brine content in chicken portions to 4%. The final regulations are not expected before mid-2013.

Brining rules vary globally. Brazil’s limit is zero and the European Union’s about 12%. The US does not limit brine but controls labelling strictly. An industry source said: “Many consumers, particularly large-scale caterers, prefer imported chicken because of the lower brine content and the difference this makes to the taste.”

Kevin Lovell, CEO of the South African Poultry Association, said there were differences on appropriate levels of injection. “All food sold in South Africa has to be safe with criminal sanction if it is not. So whether a product is brined or not, its safety has to be assured. All brined product has to be safe and is, we believe, safe.

“The main issue with brined product is: has it been labelled in a way that consumers can make an informed choice about what they are buying? We think there could be further improvements in labelling requirements.”

His association is trying to achieve this in a working group with the departments of health, agriculture, forestry and fisheries, the Consumer Goods Council of South Africa and large retailers.

Imported chicken is sold mainly via butcheries serving the lower end of the market and the service sector, mainly industrial caterers such as mine canteens.

Mr Lovell said the industry wants new regulations to cover all products, whether processed in an abattoir-linked or separate facility.

“The practice of reworking, where frozen chicken is thawed, injected and refrozen without a heat step, is something we want banned, but it is the mainstay of some of the importers’ business models.”

* This article was first published in Sunday Times: Business Times