The word fresh on food labels is a tricky word because it does not necessarily imply specific nutrient or health claims. That is, a manufacturer might use the term to mean “good and healthy” by connotation, but “fresh” is a relative term since there are always steps involved in the transition from raw food product to grocery store shelf.
For instance, we might say that the non-dried pasta we find in the refrigerated section of our grocery store is fresh compared to dried pasta but we obviously understand that it is not truly fresh in every sense of the word. There are degrees of freshness and by convention, we use the term fresh to refer to any non-dried pasta even when it may be quite old.
Many consumers get bent out of shape about terms such as fresh on food labels without considering the true extent of the word. For example, fresh might imply “unwashed”. Would many consumers actually by a packaged food that consisted of unwashed ingredients? Or would we eat our vegetables and fruit without washing them because they are fresher that way? What about the case of packaged lettuces that have been prewashed? Should they be allowed to be called fresh if the manufacturer washes them so that they are ready to be consumed? Someone has to decide how the term fresh specifically applies.
We tend to be blissfully unaware that their attitudes concerning terms such as fresh have little to do with our specific behavior. The same person who complains about the unspecified “freshness” of the poultry they buy at the supermarket would cringe and drive right by upon seeing a sign at the side of the road proclaiming “LIVE POULTRY FRESH KILLED!”
The Word Fresh on Food Labels
There are specific labeling regulations that governs the term on food packaging labels as set forth by the FDA. There is also a specific USDA regulation that governs the use of the term on poultry products.
The word fresh on food labels is set forth under the Code of Federal Regulations, Title 21, Part 101. Subpart F section 101.95 covers the terms ““Fresh,” “freshly frozen,” “fresh frozen,” “frozen fresh.”
a) The term “fresh,” when used on the label or in labeling of a food in a manner that suggests or implies that the food is unprocessed, means that the food is in its raw state and has not been frozen or subjected to any form of thermal processing or any other form of preservation, except as provided in paragraph (c) of this section.
(b) The terms “fresh frozen” and “frozen fresh,” when used on the label or in labeling of a food, mean that the food was quickly frozen while still fresh (i.e., the food had been recently harvested when frozen). Blanching of the food before freezing will not preclude use of the term “fresh frozen” to describe the food. “Quickly frozen” means frozen by a freezing system such as blast-freezing (sub-zero Fahrenheit temperature with fast moving air directed at the food) that ensures the food is frozen, even to the center of the food, quickly and that virtually no deterioration has taken place.
These rules not only cover label claims but the use of the terms in brand names and in use as a sensory modifier. A sensory modifier would be something like “smells fresh”, “looks fresh”, “tastes fresh” etc.
Certain commonly processed foods are exempt. Specifically milk can be called fresh milk even though it is pasteurized (heat treated). That is because consumers know that milk is almost always processed and it has little bearing on our perception of milk’s freshness. A counter example might be fresh salsa. Most salsas are cooked or heat treated and sold in jars. However to be called fresh a salsa would have to be unprocessed and unheated as is the case with the “fresh salsa” you might find in the refrigerated section of your grocery store, perhaps near the sour cream and packaged dips.
(c) The following provisions and restrictions, in addition, do not preclude the food from use of the term “fresh:”
- The addition of approved waxes or coatings;
- The post-harvest use of approved pesticides;
- The application of a mild chlorine wash or mild acid wash on produce; or
- The treatment of raw foods with ionizing radiation not to exceed the maximum dose of 1 kilogram
Also, a food meeting the definition in paragraph (a) above that is refrigerated is not precluded from use of “fresh” as provided by this section. So our fresh salsa is allowed to be kept refrigerated and still be called fresh.
In August, 1995 USDA/FSIS published a rule attempting to modify the definition of “fresh” to refer to poultry whose internal temperature has never been below 26 °F. That rule said poultry whose internal temperature is between 26 °F and 0 °F cannot be called “fresh” but must be called “hard-chilled” or “previously hard chilled.”
This rule was published in January 1996 the final rule was published in the Federal Register but Congress did not appropriate money for enforcing the rule. Instead, Congress asked FSIS to revise the final rule and it has now been amended to prohibit the use of the term “fresh” on the labeling of raw poultry products whose internal temperature has ever been below 26 °F.
The labels of raw poultry products that have ever been chilled below 26 °F, but above 0 °F, will not be required to bear any specific, descriptive labeling terms, including “hard chilled” or “previously hard chilled.” This means basically that if your poultry has been hard frozen at one time you do not need to say “hey this poultry was previously frozen”. You just can’t say it’s fresh on the label.
To be in compliance with the revised rule, raw poultry products that are labeled as “fresh” but have ever had an internal temperature below 26 °F will have to have the “fresh” designation deleted or removed from labeling on the package. The final rule also sets a temperature tolerance for raw poultry products. The temperature of individual packages of raw poultry products labeled “fresh” can vary as much as 1°F below 26 °F within inspected establishments or 2 °F below 26 °F in commerce.
Fresh Fish: Know What to Ask For
If you buy fresh fish from the fish section of your grocery store be aware that many times this “fresh” fish has been previously frozen and thawed before being put on display in the display case. To you, fresh fish may mean fish that has not been frozen. To others, fresh fish may simply mean fish that is not spoiled.
Do not ask the attendant at the fish case if the fish is fresh. He or she may not know what you mean. Instead, ask for the specific information you would like. Has the fish ever been frozen? When was the fish caught?
If the fish has been previously frozen and you still want to buy some fish you may be better off choosing a fish from the frozen section if you can find the variety you want. You can then thaw it yourself and use it immediately. Be aware that “fresh” shrimp has almost always been frozen and thawed before being displayed at the grocery store.
Buy your fish from a fish monger or fish market if you live in a coastal area and you are lucky enough to have one convenient to you. You still should ask the proper questions, but you are not only more likely to get accurate answers; your fish monger will expect these questions from you.
See also What is “Fresh Frozen” Food?