Why do chickens end up in the trash?

The clock is always ticking for rotisserie chickens on display at the Sam's Club in St. Louis Park. If they don't sell themselves to hungry shoppers within four hours, the chickens are sent to the trash bin.

Bill Bale, a Sam's Club shopper, heard about the practice from a store employee. With so much hunger around, he thought, why couldn't the unsold chickens be donated to food shelves or other charities?

"It bothers me that good food is being thrown away in the Dumpster," said Bale, 74, a retired lawyer who lives in Edina. So Bale started asking questions.

It's not Sam's Club policy, he learned -- it's a limit set by the state Department of Agriculture, which enforces the chapter of the Minnesota Food Code that covers cooked fowl, among other delicacies. Food sellers can meet the health standards by ensuring the chickens are kept 140 degrees or hotter, 41 degrees or lower. As an alternative, retailers can sell their chickens between those temperatures, but only for four hours.

That time limit was adopted on the basis of research into how quickly bacteria can grow on vulnerable food, according to Lorna Girard, food inspection supervisor for the agriculture department.

While Sam's Club uses the time limit for its rotisserie chicken sales in St. Louis Park, it still could rescue the chickens with rapid cooling close to the deadline. But that would require an expensive piece of equipment the store doesn't have, called a "blast chiller," said Kristy Reed, a spokeswoman for Sam's Club.

Despite the lack of a special chiller, more food than ever is making its way from Sam's Club to charities, Reed pointed out. In April, Wal-Mart announced a national food donation program for its Sam's Club division to send "bakery products and protein, including fresh meats and deli products" to the food bank network Feeding America, formerly known as America's Second Harvest.

Minnesota Sam's Clubs are part of that program, which is enabled by strict attention to keeping the food cold through delivery, said Rick Johnson, Sam's Club market manager for a large area of Minnesota.

"We're always looking for new, innovative ways to eliminate any type of waste coming from any of our buildings," Johnson said.

But at the moment, Sam's Club can't ensure the "cold chain compliance" for certain seafoods and those rotisserie chickens, he said.

Despite that, Bale said, he hopes that someone, in a time when people are flooding into food shelves, can figure out how to keep the chickens from their date with the Dumpster.

JAMES ELI SHIFFER

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