Processed meats are pumped up with water
27th April 2005
It is perfectly legal to sell watered-down food to unsuspecting shoppers, as long as you describe the water as an ingredient in the small print. The Food Magazine’s Ian Tokelove went looking for watery meat, and found the shelves awash.
Food and drink is generally sold by weight or volume, which has sometimes given unscrupulous manufacturers and retailers the opportunity to bulk out products with water and other cheap ingredients, before selling the produce on at full price. By cheating the consumer the seller profits.
Products such as canned ham can contain an amazingly small amount of real meat. This product is just 55% meat – padded out with water, ‘pork protein’ (gelatine), salt, sugar and additives.
The deception of the public used to be so commonplace that the first Adulteration of Foods and Drinks Act was drawn up over 140 years ago, in 1860. The act was designed to protect the public from the fraudulent and often dangerous adulteration of their food. Beer and milk, two dietary staples, were frequently watered down, often with unclean water. Bread and flour might be bulked out with plaster of paris. Tea could be mixed with hedge clippings.
An enormous weight of legislation now exists to protect the consumer, but the oldest and simplest form of adulteration is still with us – the addition of water to our food.
Manufacturers who bulk out their products with water can undercut the prices of rival firms, whilst boosting their own profits.
Some would consider the use of water in this way as a deception of the public, but the law considers such adulteration legal, as long as the water is listed as an ingredient.
We looked around the supermarkets to see where we could find added water. As our survey shows, we found water in some unexpected places.
Bacon and gammon
Most of the bacon we eat in the UK has been wet-cured, a preservative process which increases the meat’s water content by 5-7%. To prevent unscrupulous producers adding extra amounts of water during the curing process, legislation restricts bacon to a maximum of 10% added water before a declaration of ‘added water’ needs to be made.
However, rather than restricting the use of added water, this law actively encourages producers to add water until they hit the 10% limit. After all, if a producer can sell water for the same price as bacon they can literally make money by turning on a tap, and if they don’t to it, their competitors will.
Many supermarkets also sell ‘rounds’ and ‘plates’ of gammon and bacon. These tend to contain much more water than regular bacon. Sainsbury’s Gammon Plate Steaks state that they contain ‘not more than 10% added water’ but this doesn’t take account of the 10% water which has already, legally, been added to the meat. The steaks are only 76% meat, the rest is water and additives. ASDA’s bacon rounds are similar, being just 78% meat. The packet admits to containing ‘added water’ but doesn’t say how much.
Ham and water
Like bacon, ham frequently contains added water, but often in much larger quantities. Traditionally ham is carved from the whole hind leg of a pig, but these days you’re much more likely to find ‘reformed’ ham, which has been finely chopped and mixed with water and other extras.
At the top of this article we pictured a canned ham from Ye Olde Oak which was just 55% meat. The company also sells a ‘Premium Ham’ which is only 70% meat – is this really the best they can offer?
Ye Olde Oak aren’t the only company to sell us water instead of ham. Princes sell a ham that is only 61% meat, and Mattessons have targeted the children’s market with Thomas Shaped Ham Slices that are just 78% meat. Cheestrings also sell a Ham Wrap aimed at the school lunchbox, containing ‘ham’ that is only 80% meat. We, and our children, deserve better.
Regular Food Magazine readers will be familiar with tales of ‘Dutched’ chicken that contained up to 45% added water. You’re unlikely to find such gross adulteration on supermarket shelves, but you may still be surprised at what you can find.
Bernard Matthews, for example, is a great fan of adding water to meat. His American Fried Chicken makes no declaration of added water on the front of the packet and yet it contains a paltry 62% real chicken meat – padded out with water, starch, lactose, milk protein and vegetable oil.
The same company also sells a so-called ‘Premium’ packet of chicken breast which we purchased for £2.59. For this you get ten slices of something that is 80% chicken and 20% water mixed with potato starch, lactose, milk protein and additives. Having the cheek to sell water as meat has done Bernard Matthews well – he currently has an estimated personal fortune of £316m.
What’s in a hot dog?
Have you ever wondered what hot dogs are made of? One would obviously expect to find meat, but what sort? It turns out that most hot dogs are made from ‘mechanically separated’ chicken flesh, mixed with water, a little pork, and a wide range of starches, collagens and additives. These Ye Olde Oak Hot Dogs are less than 50% ‘meat’, if one excludes the pork collagen, beef collagen, pork fat... yummm!
Lamb is such a cheap, abundant meat that you'd think there would be no need to bulk it out with added water. And indeed there is no need, unless you're determined to squeeze as much cash as you can from rushed shoppers. We purchased a Bernard Matthews lamb roast for £3.99 and found it was just 86% meat, bulked out with water, salt and phosphate additives.
Who’s been messing with our sausages?
There’s nothing like a proper British banger, but finding the real thing is becoming increasingly difficult. Homemade sausages are made from meat, rusk, fat and seasonings with no added water. But if a manufacturer can sell us water instead of relatively expensive sausage meat they are going to give it a go. After all, if they don’t cut corners, their competitors might.
The ‘traditional style Irish recipe’ sausages pictured right are typical of the family sausages sold in UK supermarkets. They contain only 37% meat. Almost two thirds of these sausages consist of water mixed with rusk, fat, starches, additives and various other ingredients, including a red colouring to give the sausage a meaty look.
The use of water in sausages isn’t restricted to cheaper products either, the ‘Extra Special’ sausages also pictured are just 70% meat. The next largest ingredient is water, soaked up by breadcrumbs and held in place by a phosphate additive.
If you like your sausages shop around and look for sausages that contain at least 70% meat and are free of water – we think you’ll notice the difference.
Turkey – trick or treat?
Turkey was once largely restricted to a Christmas treat but intensive farming has allowed a proliferation of cheap, turkey-based products, mostly produced by the Bernard Matthews company.
We didn’t have to look far for added water. Bernard Matthew’s Wafer Thin Turkey Ham boasts that it was a Slimming Magazine Winner in 2004, and if you look at the ingredients you can see why – it’s just 60% meat! There’s plenty of extra water in this product, perhaps as much as 30%, but without any quantitive declaration of added water there’s no way for the inquisitive shopper to find out.
Product innovation is an important part of the Bernard Matthews success story. The company has diversified its product range and now sells turkey in all sorts of shapes and forms. For instance, turkey legs aren’t what one imagines when thinking of a traditional ‘roast’: Bernard Matthews now sells a ‘Quality’ Turkey Leg Roast that is less than three quarters meat, heavily bulked out with added water, lactose and milk protein.
Product innovation also gave rise to the infamous Turkey Twizzlers which contain a mere 34% turkey. These too are plumped up with added water, but without the benefits of a science lab there’s no way to tell how much.
Dairylea Lunchables also have a turkey product. As with many children’s lunchbox products the meat has been highly diluted, and contains just 58% turkey, pumped up with water, starch and additives.
Most supermarkets stock a line of low-cost economy products, aimed at the shopper on a restricted budget. Such lines can offer good value for money, especially when they include fresh fruit and vegetables. Unfortunately this good value does not always extend to their low-cost meats.
This ‘Smart Price Chicken Roll’ from ASDA is only 58% chicken, padded out with water and potato starch.
This cooked ham from Sainsbury’s ‘basics’ range weighs in at 75% meat, but is at least honest enough to give some indication of how much extra water you’re getting (‘not more than 20% added water’ according to the label).
The 5% rule
Water is the principle component of many of the foods we eat each day, and is widely used in food manufacturing processes. The addition of water to food is so common that the law allows all food sold in the UK to contain up to 5% added water without having to declare it as an ingredient.
Whilst most honest food manufacturers would not dream of sneaking extra water into their products, we do wonder if less scrupulous manufacturers might not be taking advantage of this law to pad out their products with an undeclared 5% water.
and the 5% declaration
Where there is one rule there is often another, and in this case there is a special rule for certain meat products. Cooked, cured meats such as ham or turkey that contain more than 5% added water must declare the added water in the name of the food.
For example a product would be called ‘Ham with added water’ rather than ‘Ham’. Rather than openly admit to adding water, some manufacturers choose to put the full product name in small type on the back of the packet, so that the ‘added water’ is only apparent to those who examine the package in fine detail.
A variation on this rule also applies to uncooked, cured meats like bacon, which are allowed to contain up to 10% added water before they must declare the ‘added water’ in their name.
Making it stick – keeping water in meat
Getting water into meat and fish products is a specialised process which can involve soaking, tumbling and injection. Getting the water to stay in the product is another trick altogether, and typically involves the use of water retaining additives commonly referred to as phosphates.
The additives E450 (diphosphates), E451 (triphosphates) and E452 (polyphosphates) bind water to meat and fish products and act as emulsifiers, allowing water and fat to blend more smoothly in meat mixtures such as sausages.
Manufacturers argue that such additives improve the succulence and textural quality of meat and fish products by retaining moisture. Shoppers might be more interested to note that ‘ham’ and ‘turkey’ can now be less than 60% meat, swollen with added water, phosphates and other unexpected extras.
The Meat Products (England) Regulations 2003
Labelling and Composition of Meat Products Guidance Notes from the Food Standards Agency http://www.food.gov.uk/multimedia/pdfs/meatguidance.pdf
The following pages may also be of interest
- Press: Processed meats pumped up with water
Trusted companies such as Bernard Matthews, Mattessons and Ye Olde Oak are selling meat products that contain an estimated 10 to 20% added water.