MIXED REVIEWS GREET POULTRY LABELING RULE

WASHINGTON (FNS) -- New regulations on the labeling of poultry received mixed reviews from trade and consumer associations last week.The groups were reacting to a new U.S. Department of Agriculture labeling change, handed down Aug. 24, that states only poultry that has never been chilled below 26 degrees may be labeled "fresh." As SN reported earlier, the new rule also stipulates that poultry that

WASHINGTON (FNS) -- New regulations on the labeling of poultry received mixed reviews from trade and consumer associations last week.

The groups were reacting to a new U.S. Department of Agriculture labeling change, handed down Aug. 24, that states only poultry that has never been chilled below 26 degrees may be labeled "fresh." As SN reported earlier, the new rule also stipulates that poultry that has been chilled below 26 degrees but above zero degrees must be labeled "hard chilled" or "previously hard chilled" and all poultry that has been at zero degrees or below must have a "frozen" or "previously frozen" label.

USDA officials said they regard the labeling changes as a truth-in-advertising issue.

"This rule carries out our responsibility to ensure that product labels do not mislead consumers," said Michael Taylor, acting undersecretary for food safety, in a statement.

Chickens labeled "hard chilled" or "previously hard chilled" in accordance with the new regulations will have few takers, and demand may plummet, predicts Bill Roenigk, vice president of the National Broiler Council here.

"It's too negative," Roenigk said of the designations. "No processor is going to purposely plan to produce poultry that has to be labeled hard chilled or previously hard chilled. The only way you are going to be able to sell it is at a discount, so why would you want to do that?"

Invariably, some poultry will have to carry this designation, Roenigk said, giving the example of chicken stored in a freezer with a temperature that inadvertently

slips below 26 degrees due to changes in weather or infrequency of door openings.

"For just a one- or two-degree change in temperature you are going to have to rework millions and millions of pounds and sell them as hard chilled at a discounted price, or you'll sell them to a restaurant that won't care," he said.

Before the labeling changes take effect next year, the USDA will release a list of what processors and retailers of poultry need to do to be in compliance with the regulations.

"It's going to be very important to see how the details are spelled out," Roenigk said.

Like the National Broiler Council, the National Turkey Federation, Reston, Va., took issue with the USDA's change in the definition of fresh poultry, saying it was confusing.

"Rather than create the clear, definitive labeling rules the consumer seeks, the [Food Safety and Inspection Service] simply has chosen sides in a market-share dispute between two segments of the poultry industry," the federation's statement said, implying the USDA was siding with a change made last year in California over the definition of fresh poultry. In that case, national poultry suppliers viewed the state law as being protectionist since it favored California poultry suppliers that could more readily supply product at the 26-and-above temperature level.

The California Poultry Industry Federation supported the new USDA ruling, calling it "a huge victory for consumers.

"While we are very pleased with this rule, our work is not over yet," said the president of CPIF, Bill Mattos, in a statement. "This change is the result of a lot of hard work by those concerned about truthful labeling. Those of us who sought this change knew it was nonsense to freeze a chicken as solid as a rock and then put a 'fresh' label on it. Even worse, the product would then be defrosted, put in the meat display, taken home and put in the freezer. Consumers simply were not getting what they paid premium prices for."

However, he cautioned that there was more work to be done. "We plan to continue to closely monitor this issue as the compliance regulations are worked out over the next year. We intend to make sure the intent of this rule is not lost in the red tape of implementation rules."

Consumer associations such as the National Consumers League, Citizen Action and the Consumer Federation of America also celebrated the change.

The Public Voice for Food and Health Policy did as well, but with reservations: "Public Voice would have preferred a rule requiring that all poultry chilled below 26 degrees must carry a 'previously frozen' label," said the organization's president, Mark Epstein, in a statement. "We believe this language would be more readily understood by consumers.

"Food professionals . . . say there is a difference in taste and texture between fresh and frozen chicken. Consumers have shown they are willing to pay anywhere from 10 cents to a dollar more per pound for poultry they believe to be fresh. According to one estimate, about 1.4 billion pounds of previously frozen chicken is sold annually. Using the most conservative price differential, that means today's decision is worth at least $140 million a year to consumers," Epstein said.

"[The new rule] will help consumers save money and restore confidence in food labels. We thank USDA and the Food Safety and Inspection Service for this step forward," he concluded.

Officials with the National-American Wholesale Grocers' Association, Falls Church, Va., also applauded the fresh labeling rules for allowing wholesalers and retailers to relabel poultry that has fallen below 26 degrees after delivery. Currently, poultry that needs relabeling must be sent back to the processor.

"Under the new rule, if the poultry leaves the processor at 26 or above, and in transport or storage the status of the poultry has changed, a wholesale grocer or retailer that is a USDA-inspected establishment can relabel it," a NAWGA spokesman said. "It saves time and it saves trouble and it saves money."