WASHINGTON (FNS) -- The Senate turned its attention to chicken last week, and decided that "almost frozen" can sometimes mean "fresh."
In a 38-61 vote Tuesday, the Senate rejected an attempt led by California Democratic Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein to strike from a $63.8 billion agriculture appropriations bill a provision that would prevent the U.S. Department of Agriculture from implementing new chicken labeling rules.
The preservation of the regulation ban will please some members of the poultry industry, and disappoint consumer groups that have contended that previously frozen chicken labeled as fresh constitutes "consumer fraud."
Sponsored by Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., chairman of the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, the controversial provision would deny funding needed to enforce the USDA labeling rule, which was to take effect in August 1996. In progress since the Bush administration, the USDA regulation would prohibit "fresh" labels on chickens and turkeys if they have been chilled below 26 degrees Fahrenheit, the temperature at which birds begin to freeze. As previously reported in SN, poultry chilled below 26 degrees but above zero degrees would have to be labeled "hard chilled" or "previously hard chilled" and all poultry that has been at zero degrees or below would have had a "frozen" or "previously frozen" label.
Boxer and Feinstein opposed the provision in defense of the California poultry industry. Last year the California legislature enacted a law banning the description of "fresh" from being used on poultry that has ever been kept at or below 25 degrees. Proponents of Southeastern poultry growers, Sens. Dale Bumpers D- Ark., David Pryor, D-Ark., Trent Lott, R-Miss., Howell Heflin, D-Ala., and Lauch Faircloth, R-N.C., contended
that the effort by the Californians was concocted to protect the California industry from out-of-state chicken that is shipped there partly frozen, then thawed and labeled as fresh for sale.
An agency spokeswoman said the USDA was "dismayed" at Cochran's action. "This ruling would be positive for the industry in the long run," she said, noting that the labels would "restore consumer confidence in what the industry is trying to sell them."
Industry, however, has complained that the poultry sold under the labels "hard chilled" or "previously hard chilled" will have to be sold at a discount because consumers prefer fresh chicken. The National Broiler Council said in a statement it backed Cochran's amendment because the USDA rule "amounts to a barrier to interstate commerce that benefits producers located in California and runs counter to the historic policy in favor of a national market for goods and services. USDA adopted its rule in response to pressure from a segment of the industry, not from consumers. Broiler companies produce billions of pounds of chilled chicken every year with virtually no consumer complaints regarding product freshness."
Stuart Proctor, president of the National Turkey Federation, said he wanted to see the USDA regulation amended but that he backed Cochran's amendment. The federation's complaint with the plan, Proctor said, was that there should be a 2- to 3-degree variance in the 26-degree cutoff. "It's unrealistic not to have a variance," Proctor said, noting that variances are in place for school lunch standards. Also, the definition of "hard chilled" is vague, Proctor said, because have no clear concept of what it means. Instead, USDA should consider using the term "deep chilled," which is used in Europe.
In anticipation of the vote, a coalition of consumer organizations including the National Consumers League, Citizen Action, the Consumer Federation of America, the Public Voice for Food and Health Policy, and Chefs Helping to Enhance Food Safety urged supporters of the labeling rule to work for the new provision's defeat.
"The USDA spent 15 months to study the issue, solicit public comments and review congressional testimony in order to develop the best truth-in-labeling rule that protects consumers from deception and fraud," the groups said in a joint statement. "This provision in the appropriations bill sends the wrong message by undermining the entire public regulatory process."