WASHINGTON (FNS) -- When should chicken be labeled "fresh"?
The Agriculture Department wants to know and is soliciting public comment at three hearings scheduled for this month in Modesto, Calif.; Atlanta and here.
The federal government has been wrangling with the "fresh" issue since last year after California enacted a law banning the description from being used on poultry that has ever been kept at or below 25 degrees Fahrenheit, or the point when poultry freezes.
Acting on a lawsuit by three poultry industry organizations, a U.S. District Court judge in April ruled the California law invalid, saying federal regulations permitting "fresh" labels on poultry at or below 40 degrees and above 0 degrees supersede the state's law.
Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy then decided to consider whether the federal government should follow California's lead and be stricter in its interpretation of "fresh." Advocates of the not-below-25-degree definition say poultry that's been frozen can't legitimately be labeled fresh.
The poultry industry has contended that freezing chicken does not harm the meat's freshness and only works to ensure against the breeding of bacteria.
In asking for the agency to review the "fresh" definition, Espy said the bacteria issue should be kept in mind to make "sure that any policy change does not open the door to problems like the growth of bacteria that could cause foodborne illness."
The hearings will be Sept. 12 at the Modesto Holiday Inn Hollidome, 1612 Sisk Road; Sept. 16, at Atlanta Radisson Hotel, 165 Courtland St., and Sept. 20, at Washington's Loews L'Enfant Plaza Hotel, 480 L'Enfant Plaza, S.W.