WASHINGTON -- A debate on the labeling of fresh and frozen poultry ended last week as the United States Department of Agriculture ruled that only birds chilled between 26 and 40 degrees Fahrenheit may be labeled "fresh."
Previously, the Food Safety Inspection Service policy permitted raw poultry to be labeled "fresh" provided its internal temperature was between zero and 40 degrees Fahrenheit, and only if it had never been kept below zero degrees. The new ruling could limit the amount of product receiving a "fresh" label.
After an extensive comment period, during which FSIS received input from over 26,000 individuals, associations, processors, growers, trade associations, state government agencies, and congressional members, the USDA announced a final ruling on its "fresh" labeling policy Aug. 24.
Under the new rule, effective August 25, 1996, there are three new labeling categories: · Poultry that has never been chilled below 26 degrees Fahrenheit is considered "fresh", but labeling it as such is optional;
· Those products which have been chilled below 26 degrees but above 0 degrees Fahrenheit must be labeled "hard chilled" or "previously hard chilled;"
· Those products which have at any time been at temperatures of 0 degrees or lower must be labeled "frozen" or "previously frozen."
USDA began reviewing its labeling policy on poultry in 1994, following litigation in California initiated by trade associations on the same subject. A ruling at the state level at that time confirmed Federal law overrides the labeling provision in California law. The Secretary of Agriculture consequently directed the FSIS to review its policy to be sure it "is reasonable and meets today's consumer expectations" without sacrificing principles of food safety.
Accordingly, the USDA conducted public hearings, informal surveys of callers to the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline, and reviews of scientific literature regarding the safety of poultry during shipment and storage. The comment period, which was scheduled to close March 20 this year, was extended to May 19. FSIS was able to conclude that consumers do not consider as "fresh" products that are chilled until they are hard to the touch, and therefore set the new labeling temperatures to reflect this, according to a statement from the USDA.
"The new labeling rules will give consumers better information about the poultry products they purchase," Dan Glickman, secretary of agriculture, said in a statement. "Public comments in the rulemaking convinced us that the labeling requirements we are announcing today will ensure poultry labels meet consumer expectations."
There was reassurance for industry members as well. "I am pleased that we have addressed this long-standing controversy in a way that serves both consumers and producers," said Richard Rominger, deputy secretary, in a statement.