WASHINGTON, March 30, 2016 - Some meat products sold in grocery or convenience stores don’t have to be cooked before eaten – and some do -- but sometimes a consumer can’t seem to figure out which is which. That’s why the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service wants new labeling standards.

“We’re just aware that consumers are confused,” said Dan Engeljohn, assistant administrator for the FSIS Office of Policy and Program Development.

Oftentimes a consumer will see the label on a product like a breaded chicken breast that says “RAW PRODUCT,” followed by instructions to cook it, but once it is unwrapped it looks like it’s been pre-cooked and a short zap in the microwave will do the trick.

That kind of thinking may have led to several people getting sick and some even hospitalized during salmonella outbreaks last summer that forced two companies to recall millions of pounds of chicken products, said Engeljohn.

“We’ve had a series of outbreaks that have occurred from products that were not ready to eat, but looked ready to eat,” he said. “You could make that mistake with a ham. You probably wouldn’t make the same mistake with a raw steak because it looks raw, so that’s not what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about foods that look ready to eat.”

When Portland-based Barber Foods issued a recall for more than 1.7 million pounds of frozen, raw, stuffed chicken products in July, FSIS posted this warning: “Although the products subject to recall may appear to be cooked, these products are in fact uncooked and should be handled carefully to avoid cross-contamination in the kitchen.”

And when Chicago-based Aspen Foods was forced to recall about 2 million pounds of frozen, raw, stuffed, breaded chicken products, also in July, FSIS stressed that the products “appear to be ready-to-eat (RTE).”

Aspen Foods, owned by Koch Foods, at first resisted the FSIS request that it conduct a recall because it believed it did nothing improper, said Gene Grabowski, a partner at the public affairs company K Global, who represented Aspen temporarily last summer.

“They followed the law,” Grabowski said. “They did everything properly.”

People were still getting sick, though, Engeljohn said, and FSIS strongly encouraged Aspen to conduct the recall. FSIS does not have mandatory recall authority, but the agency can order what it calls a “detention,” where it can seize products from retailers.

“A manufacturer can do everything right, but if people still get sick, there’s something else wrong that we can’t explain, and we want it out of the market place,” he said. “Some companies object to that, and this one did.”

Engeljohn said FSIS has “enough evidence” to know that current safe handling instructions are not sufficient. As a result, the agency is asking the National Advisory Committee on Meat and Poultry Inspection to consider if new federal regulations on labeling are needed.

The committee met all of Tuesday and a second day of meetings will run through Wednesday.

Alice Johnson, senior vice president for food safety, animal care and government relations at Butterball LLC and a member of the committee, told Agri-Pulse it’s far too early to say what the committee will recommend, but said she believes no new mandatory requirements are needed.

The industry responds better and quicker to voluntary guidelines, she said.

Tony Corbo, a lobbyist for Food and Water Watch, disagreed.

“There have to be more explicit instructions for consumers and it has to be mandatory,” he said. “This is becoming a very big issue.”

Engeljohn put it this way: ‘There needs to be better distinction between not-ready-to-eat and ready-to-eat.”


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