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Agriculture Dept. Passes New Definitions of 'Fresh' Poultry

By Carole Sugarman
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON

Chicken and turkey processors will no longer be able to label as "fresh" poultry that has been chilled to freezing temperatures so it can be shipped long distances, according to a rule announced Thursday by the Agriculture Department.

In seeking to improve accuracy in labeling, however, the department might not clear up the confusion for consumers. Under the new rule, USDA establishes three categories for labeling poultry products.

Frozen birds (chilled between zero and 26 degrees Fahrenheit) previously labeled "fresh" will now be labeled "hard chilled." The "fresh" label will apply only to birds that have never been chilled below 26 degrees. "Frozen" or "previously frozen" will apply to poultry chilled below zero degrees Fahrenheit.

The regulation, published in Friday's Federal Register, takes effect in one year. USDA estimated it could affect 1.4 billion pounds of the 8.9 billion pounds of chicken Americans purchase each year at supermarkets.

USDA said there would be no public health risks in shipping poultry at warmer temperatures, but might be more desirable for processors sending products more than 800 miles to continue to chill them to below 26 degrees Fahrenheit. Pure water freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit, but salts and minerals in poultry prevent it from freezing until it reaches 26 degrees.

The National Broiler Council, the Arkansas Poultry Federation and the Delmarva Poultry Industry Inc. described Thursday's announcement as arbitrary. "We believe that this rule is unnecessary and misleading," said Skip Holland, spokesman for the Arkansas producers. Giant processors, such as Arkansas's Tyson Foods, transport poultry long distances, often freezing birds at low temperatures during shipping to extend shelf life. Birds shipped at above 26 degrees last about two weeks less than those kept in the low 20s, according to the USDA.

Regional processors that don't have as far to go ship at higher temperatures. They complained they were at a competitive disadvantage because their poultry has a shorter shelf life and large poultry firms could undersell them (sometimes up to 50 cents a pound less, according to one study) while calling their products "fresh." The controversy came to a head in 1993 when California enacted its own law defining "fresh" poultry.

The National Broiler Council, The Arkansas Poultry Federation and the American Meat Institute promptly sued the state of California, and won. The judge ruled USDA labeling rules preempted the California law. But because of the issues raised, the department was asked to look at the term "fresh." Public hearings setting Western against Southeastern members of Congress produced unconventional sideshows, including California chef Wolfgang Puck bowling with an eight-pound frozen fowl on the balcony of the Rayburn House Office Building.

In January the USDA proposed poultry chilled between zero and 26 degrees be called "previously frozen." Glickman said the proposal generated 26,000 comments from the public and industry - "as many as we've had on any rule in modern history."

Processors said a product never "frozen" (chilled below zero degrees) should not be called "previously frozen." USDA's middle category, "hard chilled," was designed to overcome that problem.