As the result of action last week by a House-Senate conference committee, Southeastern poultry producers can continue to legally sell chicken that was frozen during transport as "fresh" in grocery stores throughout the country.
The practice, which has gone on for years and has been largely unknown to consumers, came to light after California producers complained that Southeastern poultry interests were receiving a significant competitive advantage by selling once-frozen meat as fresh.
After conducting hearings and processing public comments, the U.S. Department of Agriculture agreed with the Californians earlier this year.
The department's position was precedent-setting because the USDA has traditionally been criticized for being too close with the industries it regulates. USDA officials, breaking with the wishes of the majority of the poultry interests, took what many industry watchers consider bureaucratic courage that would have been unthinkable in the Reagan or Bush administrations.
The USDA set out to reform its regulation that permitted chicken chilled to as low as 0 degrees to be sold as fresh. (Food scientists say chicken carcasses are effectively frozen when the flesh temperature drops to 26 degrees.) The Agriculture Department finalized its truth-in-labeling regulation in August and was preparing to implement it when last-minute maneuvering in Congress killed funding for enforcement of the plan. There is little hope of it being revived.
In practice, this means that chicken raised in Arkansas, Georgia or Mississippi could be placed in refrigerated trucks, warehouses or other intermediary points; frozen for unlimited periods; thawed; and sold as fresh in Los Angeles, New York or Seattle. The same goes for turkey.
Today the fresh/frozen/fresh game remains in play because of national food politics: Congressmen representing the Southeastern poultry industry, known as "Big Chicken," far outnumber those from California.
Opponents of the USDA regulation, which would have labeled chicken refrigerated to less than 26 degrees as "hard chilled," claimed California was simply trying to prevent competition and protect its lucrative market with confusing labeling. Great sums of money are involved, with sales of chicken at nearly $2.5 billion annually in California alone.
Understandably, no one wants the stigma of frozen on their poultry product. Frozen foods traditionally sell for less than their fresh counterparts (as long as market conditions are normal and are not influenced by shortages or surpluses). Frozen hamburger patties, for example, cost less in stores than fresh ground beef just as frozen salmon fillets are cheaper than their fresh counterparts, and so on.
In the poultry world, the price difference between fresh and frozen chicken could be as high as 50% to 100%. A premium, for instance, is paid for fresh turkey before Thanksgiving. As some see it, the fresh/frozen/fresh chicken producers are getting twice the price for their product than they would if the truth were known about the process. Correspondingly, prices for the fresh poultry are also depressed because of the flood of fresh/frozen/fresh birds on the market.
The anomaly favoring Southeastern chicken is one of the principle reasons poultry has surpassed beef as the most popular protein source in the country during the past 20 years. Beef reached its peak in 1976 when per-capita consumption was 94.5 pounds in retail weight, according to the USDA. In 1993, beef consumption fell to 65.1 pounds per capita, or a decline of 31%.
In 1976, per-capita chicken consumption totaled 40 pounds. Seventeen years later, the figure was a record 68.3 pounds, or a startling 71% increase.
That remarkable achievement was made possible because chicken was always able to undersell the competition. Certainly, poultry also gained in prominence because of successful marketing as a low-fat alternative to red meats. But would the gain have been so dramatic if urban consumers in California and elsewhere knew they were purchasing frozen and then thawed chicken? Not likely.
During the debate on the USDA fresh/frozen regulation, Southeastern producers and their representatives in Congress freely acknowledged that their chicken shipped to other parts of the country fell well below the 26-degree freezing point. However, they contended that a frozen bird was superior to a fresh one that was in transport for only a few hours and held at 28 degrees. For instance, Southeastern producers claim that in blind taste tests consumers could not differentiate between once frozen or fresh chicken when both were cooked in a similar manner. Their argument also stated that harmful bacteria was less prevalent in the frozen birds than in fresh. (In fact, freezing does not kill pathogens such as salmonella; it only stalls the bacterium's growth.)
The irony of this controversy is that the USDA was at all sympathetic to the California poultry industry. Less than a year ago, Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy resigned amid accusations that he accepted gifts from poultry interests including Arkansas-based Tyson Foods Inc., the nation's largest poultry producer. An independent prosecutor is investigating the allegations.
One reason things went wrong for Californians producers is because they broke the food industry's golden rule which states, "Do not speak ill of thy fellow producer."
Break the rule; pay the price.