Frozen chicken breasts on sale in leading supermarkets are being pumped up with water and additives that make up nearly a fifth of the meat to the point where consumers are paying about 65p a kilo for water, the Guardian can reveal.
The legality of the industrial process, in which cheap imported chicken is “tumbled” in cement mixer-like machines, has also been called into question, but the products are available in discount ranges sold in high street retailers.
One large poultry processor in the UK, Westbridge Food Group, is importing raw frozen Brazilian chicken to which salt or a mix of corn oil and salt has already been added, then “tumbling” it with water and water-binding additives.
The meat is then repacked for sale as frozen chicken breast fillets in leading supermarkets. Asda, Aldi and Iceland all sell frozen Brazilian chicken tumbled this way by Westbridge as part of their own-label discount ranges.
Sainsbury’s also sells frozen chicken from the same factory with added water under a brand name – but not as its own label.
Formal guidance to the industry from the Food Standards Agency (FSA) states that it is illegal in the EU to reprocess frozen chicken preparations unless they are cooked or being made into composite products. But the supermarkets say they did not believe they were was breaking the regulations.
It is not illegal to sell chicken with added water so long as it is declared.
The legality hangs on whether the chicken is defined after tumbling with water as a “preparation” or a “product” that no longer retains the characteristics of raw meat.
And while the addition of water to chicken breasts used in the catering trade has been a concern for some time, the practice has spread to supermarket bargain ranges.
The Dutch Food Safety Authority told the Guardian that chicken produced in this way was illegal. It has made several enforcement visits to tumbling factories in the Netherlands in recent months to stop the practice of adding water to imported chicken destined for resale as raw meat.
The cheap ranges of frozen chicken on sale in the UK do declare the added water, as well as additives such as phosphates incorporated to stop the water from flooding out during cooking and dextrose, a sugar added to mask the saltiness of the raw material.
The industry argues that the water and additives make the meat more succulent.
But few consumers are aware that they are paying for large quantities of water in their meat, however.
Asda and Aldi packs have 18% added water in their chicken; Iceland and the Valley brand in Sainsbury’s have 15% added water.
The FSA, which appeared to have been unaware of the issue in supermarkets, is now asking Westbridge for detailed information on its processes so that it can determine whether the chicken meets legal requirements.
A spokesman for the regulator said: “This is a complex area of EU food law which, as the European commission itself has acknowledged, is subject to interpretation.
“The FSA is investigating and working with local authorities to visit relevant premises in the UK to … to identify the precise legal status under regulations.”
But the official who led for the FSA until recently on water in chicken, former head of authenticity Dr Mark Woolfe, expressed surprise that any doubts were being raised in the UK over the interpretation of the law.
The arguments being put forward by industry and retailers were “at odds with the interpretation of the European commission and many other member states”, he said.
Asda declined to comment but the Guardian understands it has now entered discussions with the supplier and regulator over the legal status of what it has been selling.
Aldi said: “We take these allegations very seriously and are working closely with our suppliers to determine whether any further action is required to comply with our high requirements.”
A spokeswoman for Iceland said the supermarket never misled its customers. “We are confident that all of our suppliers meet the required regulatory standards and that they are interpreted correctly.”
Sainsbury’s said it had been reassured the trading standards and environmental health authorities had found the supplier fully compliant with current regulations.
Westbridge is one of the fastest growing UK food companies and its commercial director, Nick Shaw, was until this month president of the British Frozen Food Federation.
It did not respond to requests for comment.
In a separate development, the Guardian has also learned that the UK authorities began collecting chicken fillets for testing by the FSA from a wide range of other outlets in March following intelligence that fraud may be involved in their labelling.
There are fears that undeclared proteins, some extracted from pig and beef waste and cattle bones, may be being added to frozen wholesale chicken sold to the catering trade, such as fast food outlets and Chinese and Indian restaurants. However, the tests will not be completed until next March.
Following on from the horse meat scandal, in which high street retailers and fast food outlets were caught selling cheap frozen burgers and beef mince adulterated with horse, the revelations will add to concern that the mainstream meat industry in the UK is no longer being properly policed.
The FSA survey of chicken breasts for protein from other species is understood to arise from concerns raised by the horse meat scandal.
Chicken bulked up with water is also being widely used in the food service sector, particularly by fast food restaurants.
Industry trade literature shows that some companies are marketing poultry pumped with 30% water as a way of cutting costs.
Dr Duncan Campbell, a former president of the Association of Public Analysts, said it had become the norm to find levels of water even higher than this. “When we last looked, 40% added water in wholesale frozen chicken breasts was not uncommon. Consumers are being swindled.”
Industry sources said that the recession has led to increasing pressure to keep costs down by using higher levels of water – which is legal if it is declared, although consumers do not see the labels in restaurants. The attraction of processed chicken imports from Brazil is that they are charged a lower EU tariff than untreated chicken, saving importers who exploit the loophole millions of euros each month.