KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Define the word “fresh” in describing meat or poultry in 10 seconds or less. Hard to do, isn’t it?

I recently read an article written by an online news editor focusing on the word “fresh”, a commonly used, decades-old food descriptor. The point of her article was when it comes to food, this word has morphed into meaning many different things to many people over the years. As a result, it is pretty much a meaningless word today, she claimed.

Due to a myriad of marketing programs and food companies that use the word fresh differently, many consumers might think it is synonymous with other words such as healthful, unprocessed or even local.
Although it might have different meanings to consumers, fresh has specific meanings regarding meat and poultry products. I contacted the Food Safety and Inspection Service press officer for an update on what FSIS regulations had to say on this matter.

“We have two regulations on ‘fresh’, as well as an entry in the Food Standards and Labeling Policy Book. There is also information on the FSIS website,” he said.

Here’s what he pointed out:

9 CFR 317.8(b)(6) and 381.129(b)(6)(i)

“Fresh,” “not frozen” and similar terms when labeling meat and poultry products:

The word —“fresh” may not be used to describe:

1. Any cured product, e.g., corned beef, smoked cured turkey, or prosciutto.

2. Any canned, hermetically sealed, shelf-stable, dried or chemically preserved product.

3. Any raw poultry, poultry part or any edible portion thereof whose internal temperature has ever been below 26°F.

4. Any injected, basted, marinated poultry, poultry part or any edible portion thereof whose internal temperature has ever been below 26°F.

5. Any other finished processed poultry product (including cooked poultry products) where its temperature has ever been below 26°F, e.g., turkey sausage, chicken meatballs, cooked breaded chicken nuggets, etc.

6. Any uncured red meat product permitted to be treated with a substance that delays discoloration, such as, ascorbic acid, erythorbic acid or citric acid.

7. Any product treated with an antimicrobial substance or irradiated.

8. The phrase —“never frozen” or similar verbiage is not permitted on an unprocessed or processed poultry product where the internal temperature of the product has ever been below 0°F or on any red-meat product that has ever been frozen.

Further, the phrase —“never frozen” or similar verbiage is not permitted on refrigerated secondary products where the meat or poultry component has ever been frozen, e.g., multi-component meals, dinners, etc.

Generally, trademarks, company names, fanciful names, etc., containing the word —“fresh” are acceptable, even on products produced in a manner described in one through seven above, provided the term is used in such a manner that it remains clear to the purchaser that the product is not fresh.

Secondary products, e.g., pizza, multi-component meals, dinners, etc., sold in the refrigerated state, i.e., not frozen or previously frozen, may be labeled as —“fresh” when the term is used to describe the product as a whole even when made from components processed in a manner described in one through seven above.

When I began covering the prepared foods industry, a noted food scientist at that time went into great detail explaining at an industry meeting that a food product that was flash-frozen was likely fresher than a refrigerated product already in the supermarket meat case. That point has stuck with me throughout the decades. So, whenever I see the term, “Fresh, never frozen,” my mind’s-eye sees, “Refrigerated, never frozen.”

I have to admit….I prefer buying frozen beefsteak patties for grilling and I have seldom, if ever, been able to tell the difference between frozen or refrigerated patties. To me, frozen patties taste fresh (like they were just made) and I don’t have to worry about shelf-life or product spoiling in the refrigerator if not eaten by a “use-by” date.

Regardless, here’s hoping retail butchers and foodservice operators are able to satisfy today’s shoppers and diners the next time they ask if a certain cut of meat or poultry is fresh. Since the meaning of fresh has changed so much in consumers’ minds over the years, should any changes be considered in the regulations regarding defining fresh meat and poultry? Just asking.