WASHINGTON (FNS) -- Supermarkets will only be able to sell chicken or turkey labeled fresh if the poultry has never been chilled below 26 degrees Fahrenheit, according to a recent decision by the U.S. Department of Agriculture intended to settle a long-standing argument over whether a bird that was once partially frozen can legitimately be called fresh.
For their part, supermarket operators are in support of the change.
"I think what many retailers were concerned about was that consumers should have accurate information about what is fresh, based on a legitimate standard," said Tom Wenning, vice president and general counsel at the National Grocers Association, Reston, Va.
The USDA decided to weigh in on the fresh vs. frozen debate to settle a dispute between California poultry farmers and their counterparts in the South.
The southern contingent wanted the old USDA definition of fresh -- poultry chilled at zero or above -- to stay on the books. California farmers argued that poultry that has become hard to the touch, even though not frozen solid, is no longer fresh.
Under the new USDA rule, poultry must not be refrigerated to below 26 degrees Fahrenheit from the time it is processed if it is to be labeled fresh.
The agency is allowing some variation, permitting the temperature to drop as low as 24 degrees, as long as the average temperature is maintained at 26 degrees or above. The regulations are scheduled to go into effect in December 1997.
Poultry refrigerated below zero degrees Fahrenheit must be labeled frozen. However, the USDA has chosen to not offer a designation for poultry kept between zero and 26 degrees.
Bill Roenigk, vice president at the National Broiler Council, Washington, said the USDA's new poultry-labeling standards reflected the compromise reached early in 1996 between the two Southern poultry lobbies and their California counterparts.
"Now we are going to have to more closely monitor our product. We'll have to have a tighter control system," Roenigk said.
Closer monitoring and problem-free deliveries are particularly needed, since the lifespan of poultry kept at 26 degrees and above is much shorter than product kept at colder temperatures.
Roenigk said the added costs for monitoring won't likely be reflected in poultry prices. About 25% of the chickens produced in the U.S. for retail sale will be affected by the new ruling.