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Coming to a Store Near You: Meat Labeling

Nutritional labeling will be required on 40 popular cuts of meat starting January 1, 2012, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently announced.

Nutritional labeling on meat is long overdue. For over 15 years, virtually all packaged goods manufacturers have been required to include nutrition facts on their products providing uniform information on serving size, calories and nutrient content.

Meat products were not required to follow this mandatory labeling; instead the agency made participation voluntary. Given the high fat and saturated fat content of U.S. beef it’s not surprising that meat producers opted to exclude this information.

The new meat labeling will require the most common cuts of poultry, pork, beef, lamb and ground meat (beef and turkey) to include information on serving size, calories, total calories from fat and total grams of fat and saturated fat. The labels will also be required to show details about protein, cholesterol, sodium and vitamin content.

While the new labeling is designed to help consumers, the Center for Science in Public Interest (CSPI) does not agree. The group had urged USDA to prohibit the term “percent lean” as it is misleading to consumers. CSPI prefers the term “low fat” which is defined by the FDA as a product that does not contain more than 3 grams of fat per serving. Even very lean meat products such as 90% lean beef does not meet this standard.

“Use of the word ‘lean’ in the context of ground beef is designed to deceive,” says CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson. “The meat industry has insisted on labeling ground meat that way to make ground beef appear leaner. Consumers assume that they are following advice to eat lean meat when they purchase ground beef that is 80 percent lean, yet it is one of the fattest meats on the market.

For example, 10% fat ground beef sounds like a small percentage of total calories comes from fat. This is a misnomer because percent lean is based on weight, not calories. A quarter pound hamburger made from this ground meat contains 175 calories of which 83 or 47.4% is from fat! Hardly a low-fat option. The same patty has 9 grams of fat or 14% of daily values of which half or 4 grams is from saturated fat or 18% of daily values and another gram is from trans-fats. This serving size has 71 mg of cholesterol or almost a quarter of daily values. Now you can see why meat producers have lobbied hard against meat labeling.

Another issue with the new labeling is that a serving is based on 4-ounces. Just like single serve drinks have deceptive packaging (sold as one serving but if you read the nutrition facts most bottles contain 2.5 servings), meat products will follow suit. Fast-food and dine-in restaurants have portion sizes that are often two, three and even four times that size. CSPI had urged USDA to mandate single serve packages of meat contain nutrition facts for the whole cut as sold or clearly indicate that the package contains multiple servings. Neither option is required under the new ruling.

A final blow to the new ruling is that stores have the option to put the meat labeling on package or post in the store. Until now, most stores have chosen the latter option. If nutritional information is available in store signs, what’s the betting this information will be visible?

The Bottom Line

Regretfully, this is another example of government health and nutrition rulings being too heavily influenced by big lobbies. In this case, from the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. So, that basically leaves it up to the individual to make food choices that support health goals.

To stay healthy and keep your weight in check, it makes sense to watch your fat intake especially from saturated and transfats. These types of unhealthy fats increase LDL or “bad” cholesterol levels.

The government recommends that adults get around 30% of calories from fat (65 g) and no more than 7% of calories from saturated fat (20g). If you consume 2,000 calories a day that equates to 585 calories from fat and 180 calories from saturated fat.

One way to watch your fat and saturated fat intake is to consume lean meat products. Lean chicken is about 20% fat whereas beef tenderloin, a relatively lean cut of beef is 45% fat even when all the visible fat is removed.

Nowadays, pasture fed beef is available at more supermarkets and many ranches offer their products online. While more expensive, this higher quality beef is lower in fat because the animals feed on grass and not grain. To find a directory of pasture based farms in your area visit the Eat Wild site.

Opt for fish like wild salmon, which is high in Omega-3 content and low in saturated fat. Or, increase the protein content of meals by adding beans, nuts and legumes.

Perhaps most importantly, become an educated consumer and start reading nutritional labels.

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