A four-year battle over when a chicken is fresh or frozen has finally ended. It will take a sharp-eyed shopper to figure out the difference.
Agriculture Department rules rooted in a 1993 California court case now prohibit processors from selling raw poultry as “fresh” if it has ever been chilled below 27 degrees Fahrenheit.
Before the rules, which took effect Dec. 17, chickens could be chilled to between zero degrees and 26 degrees, then thawed out and still be sold as “fresh.”
“It’s been sort of a joke up to now,” said Jim Perdue, president of Maryland-based Perdue Farms Inc., the nation’s No. 2 chicken processor. “No consumer is going to believe that zero degrees is fresh. It should have been done a long time ago.”
But there’s a hitch: Congress forced the Agriculture Department to drop plans to require chickens that have been chilled at between zero degrees and 26 degrees be described as “hard chilled” or “previously hard chilled.”
Instead, those chickens will be in a kind of limbo, neither fresh nor frozen. Their labels don’t have to say anything either way.
The “chilled” words were dropped when several poultry-state senators were able to insert language prohibiting it in the 1996 Agriculture Department spending bill.
“We felt they were going to bat for state economic interests,” said Bob Hahn, legal affairs director at Public Voice for Food and Health Policy. “They felt it would be a money-loser for the chickens to be labeled hard-chilled.”
In essence, Hahn said, a consumer should assume that any chicken not labeled “fresh” may have been chilled below 26 degrees, which makes the meat as hard as a rock and lengthens its shelf life but, some say, sacrifices taste quality.
“The chicken is less tender and less tasty, but it’s not a safety concern,” he said.
The new rules arose from a 1993 California law restricting use of the term “fresh” that was subsequently challenged by poultry trade associations. Although a federal judge found that U.S. regulations pre-empted California’s law, the Agriculture Department decided in 1994 to look into making changes nationwide.
As early as 1988, Perdue and other chicken companies had contended the federal rules were misleading. Frank Perdue, the former company president, did some now-famous TV ads that aired along the East Coast in which he hammered a nail into a board with a so-called “fresh” chicken.
“I’d hate to try this,” he deadpanned, pounding away, “with one of my fresh chickens.”
Many in the poultry industry insist that chilling the birds below 26 degrees has no detrimental impact on taste. During the debate, the National Broiler Council, an industry group, objected to the 26-degree cutoff as lacking in scientific justification.
The process, which uses cold blasts of air as the chicken moves along a conveyor belt, gives the product a shelf life of 14 days, compared to about a week for chicken packed in ice.
Jim Perdue said that by using controlled vacuum packing that inhibits bacterial growth, his products have a 17-day shelf life without chilling below 26 degrees.
Although the new labels are not as precise as Agriculture Department officials originally wanted, Hahn said consumer advocates are heartened that at least they won’t be misleading.
“That was the main thing,” he said. “The USDA did the best that they could under the circumstances. Their hands were somewhat tied by Congress.”
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