WASHINGTON (FNS) -- Poultry can no longer be labeled "fresh" if it has ever been chilled below 26 degrees F during the distribution process, according to a new proposal from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Under current regulations, raw poultry can still be labeled as fresh even if its internal temperature is a chilly zero degrees. Under the proposal, poultry that has ever been between zero and 26 degrees would have to have a label signaling that it was "previously frozen." "Consumers generally expect that a product labeled fresh has not been frozen," acting Secretary of Agriculture Richard Rominger said in a statement.
The proposal, which will be open to public comment until March 20, essentially mirrors regulations approved last year by California lawmakers that were successfully challenged in court by the national poultry industry.
In December, a three-judge panel for the U.S. Court of Appeals' Ninth Circuit in San Francisco ruled that the state law couldn't conflict with the wider federal standard.
While glad the USDA "has asserted its jurisdiction over the labeling of fresh poultry," and thus will bring national uniformity to a new standard, the National Broiler Council criticized the new proposal.
"We maintain our position that fresh poultry cannot be defined at one precise and arbitrary temperature and that frozen is not the opposite of fresh," the council, the lobbying arm of the poultry industry, said in a statement.
In the past, the council has argued that there is no difference in taste between a poultry item that has been frozen and one that has not. Furthermore, the trade group has argued that chilling poultry below 26 degrees is often necessary in making long-distance deliveries.
Meanwhile, the USDA's fresh poultry proposal is going to be submitted to the National Advisory Committee on Microbiological Criteria for Foods for review. According to Michael Taylor, administrator of the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service, the agency has already concluded that the safety of poultry isn't harmed as long as it is kept at 40 degrees or below.
Before proposing the regulations, the USDA last year conducted three public hearings to glean comments. In testimony, Jim Ukrop, vice chairman and chief executive officer of 23-store Ukrop's Super Markets, Richmond, Va., said there was a need to clarify what's fresh and frozen.
"I do not feel I should need to explain to my customers that my fresh turkeys are 20 cents a pound higher than my competition's fresh turkeys because my turkeys have never been frozen and their's have been," he said.