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UK Guardian - Environmental News
Energy companies say nothing on £50 price reduction
Consumer groups criticise dragging feet by 'big six' after Osborne bill reduction pledge
Five of the big six energy suppliers in Britain have so far failed to announce how and when they will pass on the £50 annual bill reduction to all their customers promised by the chancellor in the autumn statement.
Consumer groups criticised the foot dragging, which was underlined on Friday when E.ON said bills would rise 3.7%. The company was the last of the big six to set its figure in a wave of price rises that will cost householders an estimated £920m.
The government has helped large power firms by removing the cost, or slowing down implementation, of various social and environmental obligations. The move is deigned to aid cutting customers' gas and electricity bills.
E.ON said it would have increased its dual fuel prices by more than 3.7% if it had not been for the levy cuts but the German-owned firm has not lowered bills for those on fixed rates.
RWE npower so far has only talked in general terms about a price freeze for householders, while SSE and Scottish Power have yet to say exactly when and how they will share the savings with customers.
EDF has remained silent on whether its "fixed-price customers" will benefit, drawing criticism from the watchdog Consumer Futures, which said the lack of action since George Osborne's announcement contrasted with the "noise" around the need for green levies to be lifted.
"We are in discussion with them on these issues. Given the amount of heat generated by some of the lobbying it is not ideal that they are now so silent. But there is again this lack of transparency around costs and we don't know if customers are paying a fair price," said Audrey Gallacher, director of energy at Consumer Futures.
Clare Francis, energy spokesperson at MoneySuperMarket.com, said it was unacceptable for the energy companies to save money from the government's concessions but then hold on to the cash themselves.
She said: "If energy firms are to treat their customers fairly they should all follow British Gas' lead and be held to account by the regulator if they don't. And we need them to act sooner rather than later.
"The next few months will be the coldest of the year, and with millions of people already struggling to afford to heat their homes, hard-pressed households deserve to benefit from the fact that their energy provider will now have to pay less in government obligations straight away."
The price switching business uSwitch said the total cost of bill increases from the big six, averaging £92 per customer, had added £920m to the nation's fuel bills, but the action over green levies would mean a reduction of £330m.
British Gas has been the only one of the big six to confirm it will cut bills, by £53 a year from January. This means that a previously announced price increase of 8.8% will fall to 5.5% for customers on variable contracts, and prices will also be reduced on fixed plans.
Tony Cocker, chief executive of E.ON, said his company would have raised prices for dual-fuel customers above the 3.7% level if it had not been for the changes in the green levies.
He said: "We have moved quickly to pass on the benefits of changes announced by the government at the beginning of this week. This means we have reduced the overall level of the rise that is necessary to cover the extra costs we are seeing in some areas."
But a spokesman for the company admitted that customers on fixed contracts would not benefit from the changes in the green levy on grounds that they were also immune to any future rises.
E.ON pointed out that figures from the regulator, Ofgem, showed that it had completed 74% of some work required under the green levies. This compared with 9% at British Gas, which was at the forefront of lobbying ministers before the autumn statement announcement.
Scottish Power claimed it was one of the best performers under the energy companies obligation and hoped to have details next week on exactly how and when it would be cutting bills. "We are going to pass on to the customers in the new year the cost reductions and it will be about £50," said a spokesman.
But MoneySuperMarket said it would be unfair of E.ON and others not to ensure that every customer benefited.
A spokeswoman added: "The extra costs of the green levies would have been built in when the fixed-price offerings were put forward to customers. It only seems right that they are reduced now.
Green levies and the big six
Intends to cut bills by £53 in January, two months after a £123 price rise for the average dual-fuel customer.
Bills to rise by average of 3.7% (£43). Without levy cuts, bills would have been higher. It has not cut charges for customers on fixed price contracts.
Will pass on savings of about £50. No details given about when or whether this applies to all customers.
Stated its recent price rise of 3.9% would have been higher without the anticipated reductions to its costs.
Raised prices by 10.4%. Plans a conditional price freeze until 2015.
Will pass on savings of about £50 annually, but has not yet said when or how.theguardian.com © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds
Chicken tumbling to add water – a widespread industrial practice
It is legal to add water and additives to bind it in, even protein of other species, so long are they are declared on the label
The industrial practice of tumbling chicken fillets in large cement-mixer-like machines so that they take up water is widespread. In some cases chicken meat undergoes a further process in which more water is injected into it.
A Guardian investigation 10 years ago exposed Dutch manufacturers using the technology to adulterate chicken meat with heavily disguised beef waste.
Companies in Germany and Spain were extracting proteins by hydrolysis from beef and pig hides and even from cattle bones and selling them in powder form to be mixed with water – the added proteins lock water into the flesh so that it does not flood out when the chicken is cooked.
The companies making the protein powders had found ways of extracting the protein so the DNA was hard to detect. The FSA had to work with laboratories to develop new methods of testing to establish which species were being used. It was this work that led to tests able to detect horse DNA in beef.
Efforts to police and stop the adulteration of chicken – which spanned a global chain from Britain, to Holland, Germany and Spain – broke down between the different jurisdictions. The UK authorities called for an EU limit on how much water could be added to chicken, but no action was agreed in Brussels. It remains legal to add water and additives to bind it in, even protein of other species, so long are they are declared on the label.
There is no evidence that supermarket frozen chicken makes use of added animal proteins, but the technology of adding water and other additives has spread to the high street.
Industry sources say the recession has given new impetus to adulteration of chicken. The price of grain to feed livestock has been at record highs, partly as a result of increased global demand and partly because extreme weather associated with climate change has affected crops. As a result, inflation in meat has been running at rates significantly higher than headline inflation. While the cost of the raw material and the fuel needed to keep the global meat supply chains operating has risen, wages have been stagnating and consumers have less money to spend.
Supermarkets have responded by promoting discount ranges, though paying for water may not be such a bargain.theguardian.com © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds
Supermarkets selling chicken that is nearly a fifth water
Consumers paying 65p a kilo for water, as legality of process of 'tumbling' imported chicken called into question
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.theguardian.com © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds
Christmas appeal: how solar lamps are transforming life in one Kenyan county
Solar Aid, one of our charities, has let a firm spread its technology to remote areas, helping children study
Chepnyaliliet school, with its rough concrete walls and tin roof at the end of a dusty lane lined with cacti and wild roses, seems an unlikely place find early adopters of technology. But that is exactly what Rhoda Sigei is. The determined nursery teacher was the first person in Bomet county, a verdant patch of Kenya's Great Rift valley, to buy into the potential of using solar lamps. When the headteacher brought some samples to the school, Sigei knew she had to have one, so she asked for an advance on her tiny salary. "It was a struggle to get the first one, but I didn't stop there. I bought three," she says.
She quickly realised the £5 orang plastic lamps, branded as d.lights, would pay for themselves because she and her husband, who farms a small plot, would no longer have to pay £8 a month in fuel for their paraffin lamp.
That is a substantial saving when you earn just 3,000 Kenyan shillings (£21) per month. A reliable light in the evenings has enabled Sigei to help her 12-year-old daughter, who is struggling at school, and let her 14-year-old son indulge his interest in science.
It has also allowed Sigei to study for a diploma that could result in her being promoted to a full teaching job that would treble her earnings.
The d.lights are part of a range of durable and affordable solar lamps made by Sunny Money, a subsidiary of the UK charity Solar Aid.
By investing in Sunny Money, Solar Aid has helped the firm expand to more remote areas such as Bomet, where shareholder-led ventures might fear to tread. Being a philanthropic rather than purely commercial investor gives it extra time to develop new markets.
Chepnyaliliet, an hour's drive over rutted tracks from the nearest paved road, is dark after nightfall, like much of Kenya. The single power line that has run since 2011 to Sigei's school is not connected to any of the nearby homes. Fewer than 20% of homes in east Africa's largest economy have access to electricity and there is nothing to suggest hamlets such as this, where many of Kenya's 43 million people live, will be connected to the national grid anytime soon.
Sunny Money works by approaching schools and persuading headteachers like Chepnyaliliet's Richard Bii that their products can transform their pupils' performance.
Milton Cheriot is a prime example. The scruffy 13-year-old spends his spare time falling out of trees, testified by the scars on his smiling face. His name is stitched into his jumper so his mother can make sure her six children put on the right clothes. Now he consistently has light in the evening, Milton can concentrate on his homework.
"In the old days we would have a lamp maybe three days a week. Now it's every day. And it doesn't produce smoke."
Nights spent straining his eyes to a flickering paraffin flame often led to headaches, itchy eyes and allergies, he says.
Milton says he reads for three hours every evening. It's paid off – he scored 86 out of 100 in general science, a mark that propelled him to second spot in his school's rankings.
"As soon as people saw someone they knew having one of these then everyone wanted to have one," says Bii. Mr B, as everyone calls him, estimates that after one year of sales, nearly half of the 517 pupils at his school now have the lights at home.
The 53-year-old expects to post a big improvement in his pupils' results this year.
The money saved on paraffin has changed what families such as the Sigeis can afford to eat.
"Instead of just eating ugali (maize porridge) every day I can mix using rice or chapatis.
"I'm now balancing the diet for them," says Sigei.
The UK Department for International Development has promised to help fund the project. Justine Greening, international development secretary, said: "Building a team of entrepreneurs to distribute over 80,000 affordable solar lights in Kenya, Zambia and Malawi means Solar Aid will provide light after sundown to thousands of families for the first time, while creating new jobs and helping people to save money. Increasing the market for solar lanterns will also benefit communities by improving access to clean energy and increasing the amount of time children can spend studying.
"By matching Solar Aid's project pound for pound we are enabling more people in Africa to earn a decent income and helping to end aid dependency through job creation."
Meanwhile, Sigei has her eyes on a new range of bigger, brighter lights known as Firefly and the Sun King, which come with a separate solar panel and a USB port that can be used to charge a mobile phone. The Sun King costs £25, but she has already started saving for one and expects to have enough for an upgrade early in the new year.
The willowy mother, typical of the tall, thin Kalenjin tribes of the Rift, would like her son, Hasbon, to have more choices than his father. The growing population of Bomet county means future generations will have smaller parcels of land to farm.
"I want him to do something different. Nowadays farming has become too difficult and the plots are so small.
"I would like him to be a doctor," says Sigei.