Raw meat injected with water and additives to retain moisture is being sold alongside ordinary fresh meat by leading UK supermarkets, a disclosure that represents yet another blow to the reputation of food production writes Anthony Fletcher.
Shropshire County Council's trading standards service report reveals that raw pork with added water is being sold alongside genuine uncooked pork often at a premium price.
"I suppose I shouldn't be surprised," Jeanette Longfield, co-ordinator of Sustain (alliance for Better Food and Farming) told FoodProductionDaily.com. "But I would have thought that after the scandal of water in chicken, the industry would have been concerned to keep up high standards. I have to say my heart sank when I heard about the report."
Longfield's concern is that this report could further undermine public confidence in food production.
"This is another nail in the coffin for the industry," she said. "People are already distrustful of the industry following Salmonella, the water in chicken episode, and now we have water in pork. Consumers must be thinking: 'whatever next?' It is also bad news for good manufacturers, and farmers must be despairing."
The Trading Standards Institute (TSI) has now pressed the government's Food Standards Agency to intervene in the matter.
"The practice of adding water to ham and chicken products is already commonplace but, until now, at least consumers could be sure that raw meat was genuine," said David Walker, TSI spokesman and Shropshire's chief trading standards officer.
"Some supermarkets and at least one manufacturer have now started to add water to raw pork. This is being sold alongside genuine raw pork, causing confusion for shoppers. The actual meat in some of the products is as low as 87 per cent."
Supermarket giant Tesco confirmed in the UK's Guardian that it had been injecting its "Finest" pork for about three years. "The water isn't injected to add weight or dupe customers," spokesman Steve Gracey told the newspaper. "It is added to improve eating quality."
And in a written letter to the newspaper in response to the allegations, Tesco company secretary Lucy Neville-Rolfe claimed that the firm's labelling of meat products was not confusing.
"Nobody has clearer labelling than Tesco and we regularly review our packaging with customers to make sure it helps them select products," she wrote. "Added ingredients such as water are clearly labelled on the front of the pack. Demand for leaner, healthier cuts means that meat can become tough or dry when cooked. Adding water keeps the meat succulent and tender and regular customer tastings tell us it provides a better-quality product."
Such excuses are met with scorn from Longfield. " I don't know about you, but generally speaking I don't inject my meat with water," she said.
The TSI also found that references to 'added water' are often in the small print, and some of the products with added water are promoted as 'premium' brands with extra 'succulence'. This, says the institute, means that consumers are sometimes being asked to pay more for meat with the added water that they might not fully appreciate was present in the first place.
"Experience has shown that, once individual companies adopt a marketing practice of this sort, the practice very quickly spreads," said Walker. "This could be the thin end of a very large wedge."
He said that consumers could expect more and more adulterated products with less and less meat unless something is done very quickly.
The TSI is calling for the reference to 'added water' on the meat label to be in the same size lettering as the description of the meat itself to make sure that shoppers can distinguish between products at a glance. The institute also wants meat products with added water to be placed in a separate supermarket section clearly labelled 'meats with added water', so that consumers can know where to look to find either raw or processed meat.
I would want, at an absolute minimum, extremely clear labelling," said Longfield.
In addition, it wants manufacturers and supermarkets to revise labels on some 'added water' products that currently claim to be 'basted', or 'basted for succulence'. Basting is a process involving the addition of fat during cooking, not water prior to sale.
"Whatever the reasons for adding water to pork consumers need to know exactly what they are being asked to pay for so that they can make their own, informed choices," said TSI chief executive Ron Gainsford. "This is why we are asking for urgent action to improve labelling."
Sue Davies, principal policy adviser for the Consumers' Association, said: "It is outrageous that consumers are being duped into buying fresh meat with water added to it and then asked to pay more for the privilege.
"This is little more than old-fashioned food adulteration and the industry and Food Standards Agency must ensure that if these products continue to be sold, they can't be confused with fresh meat."