The survey, published today, was carried out as part of the Agency's ongoing food surveillance programme. It showed that, when using one of the methods laid down in legislation, on average nearly a third (30%) of frozen whole chickens analysed contained more than the EC limit of added water (seven percent).
A certain percentage of added water is permitted by EU legislation because it is an unavoidable consequence of the chilling process. These limits vary from two to seven percent, depending on the chilling method used. There are three methods which result in different levels of legally accepted unavoidable added water.
There are also two permitted methods to measure the amount of added water, a drip test and a chemical test, and these do not appear to correlate. The Agency used the chemical test because it could be used for all samples. The drip test can only be used for frozen whole chickens.
The Agency now intends to look further at the methods of water level measurement and push for better and more transparent labelling so that consumers have a clearer idea of what they are paying for.
Food Standards Agency Deputy Chair, Suzi Leather, said:
"The bottom line is that in too many cases, consumers are paying for water when they should be paying for chicken. Some of the levels of water found in chickens and chicken pieces are completely unacceptable. The main problem seems to be with whole frozen chickens, frozen chicken breasts and some chicken products. There are no food safety issues here, but this goes right to the heart of consumer choice and value for money. But the main problem is that the legislation in this field appears to be incomplete and inconsistent. We will be pushing for changes in EU procedures as a matter of urgency. As an Agency we want to see this issue dealt with quickly and efficiently so that consumers can be confident about the choices they make."
The survey found that 17% of chicken parts analysed had water levels from 2% to 37%. Of approximately 160 chicken parts with added water, about 135 were breast portions and about 25 were thigh portions. Most of the chicken parts (about 105) were frozen. In 17 cases, the added water was neither declared nor listed anywhere on the product packaging.
In the case of non pre-packaged samples, many obtained from butchers shops, some had added water of more than 30%. But they are only regulated generally by the Food Safety Act and Food Labelling Regulations and may not be breaking any current legislation.
In some of the non-pre-packaged samples, the bulk batches were correctly labelled by the wholesaler but the relevant information was not then displayed or made available to the consumer in the individual shops at the point of retail sale.
Even when labelled correctly, the survey has shown that chicken products with declarations about added water can be confusing because different wording is required depending on which regulation applies. Also, not all types of chicken products are covered by legislation, which requires a declaration of added water or meat content.
The survey was carried out in response to consumer concerns raised with the Food Standards Agency Working Party on Food Authenticity. All the suppliers involved in the survey in whose products added water was found have been informed of the results, some have already taken action to investigate the situation further.
The Agency informed Trading Standards Officers as soon as the results were known, so that any cases of deliberate misdescription could be followed up.
The three different chilling methods accepted in the EU are:
There are also two legally accepted methods of analysing the level of water in chicken - the drip test and the chemical test. The latter was used by the Food Standards Agency because it needed to use a method which could be applied to chilled or frozen whole chickens, chicken pieces and chicken products. The former method can only be used for frozen whole chickens. The chemical method is also thought to be more reliable.
A total of 532 whole chickens (287 frozen) and more than 1000 chicken parts were collected between December 1999 and January 2000 in 30 different regions of the UK. They were bought from a range of commercial outlets including supermarkets, cash and carrys, local butcher shops and other retailers.
The survey coincides with a recent report that water levels as high as 40% had been found in imported chicken meat. The purpose of the survey was to find out the levels of added water in chicken and inform consumers.