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Finally, the New Meat Label

Or at least the new meat poster or brochure. New laws require better nutrition labeling.
Image Credit: Randy Mayor

Twenty percent of the typical grocery budget is spent in the meat department. But no nutrition labeling has been required for this major source of protein and saturated fat in the U.S. diet, except for processed meats such as hot dogs. In March, after a last-minute hiccup that delayed a planned January roll-out, that's scheduled to change. The information we've come to expect on cereal boxes will be available for fresh meats. This is good news, except that the information might not always appear quite where you'd expect it—on packages.

Why has this been so long in coming? Fresh meats were exempt from the law that brought nutrition labels to all packaged foods—the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990. The industry was allowed to voluntarily label meats. Fewer than 60% of producers or retailers did so (whether on a package, pamphlet, or poster). The USDA proposed the new label in 2001. Eleven years later, it arrives.

Meats that are factory-packed or branded (like Laura's Lean Beef) arrive at the store already labeled. But that represents only about 50% of all fresh meat. The rest is butchered and packaged in grocery stores. The unfortunate wrinkle here is that retailers can simply hang a poster or offer a brochure that contains the nutrition information. One exception: ground and chopped meats, which I'll get to.

So, in March you should look for those posters or brochures. And when you find one, there are several points to keep in mind when putting it to use. First, the data, which reflect a single serving of meat, are based on the percentage of grades, from choice to select, available at retail, with a 1/8-inch trim of fat. Grades and trimming vary the nutrition significantly.

Second, the numbers are based on 3-ounce cooked portions of meat, even though you generally buy meat raw. To figure out the servings of something like a 2-pound raw chuck roast involves this sort of math: 32 ounces of raw beef shrinks by about 25% in cooking, yielding 24 ounces of cooked meat—or eight 3-ounce portions. Most customers won't do this kind of portion math, of course, and the best outcome will likely just be more awareness of which are the fattier cuts. Another wrinkle: The cooking calculations are an average of preparation methods—dry-cooked (e.g., grilled, where some fat may drip away) and wet-cooked (e.g., braised, where all the fat stays in the pot). So they're approximations of approximations.

Also, the USDA first established guidelines for the cuts it will be requiring data for almost 20 years ago. Since then, buying trends have changed. You won't find any info for flank steak or chicken breast tenders, two popular lean choices today.

Now, let's look at the tighter rules for ground meats. On-pack labels will specify "80% lean/20% fat," which makes it a bit clearer that 20% of the weight is fat rather than calories. But the real benefit is the listing of saturated fat per serving, which ranges from a scant 2.5g for ground sirloin to a whopping 13g for ground chuck.

All ground meat nutrition labels are based on 4 ounces raw, which translates to 3 ounces cooked. Some labels may tell you both, although only the raw numbers are required. And you might not find how many servings are in a package—you'll have to check the weight and do the math for yourself.

It's only fair to point out that meat labeling poses unique challenges. Nutrition content varies from breed to breed, cut to cut, even animal to animal, depending on dozens of factors. At least curious customers now will have a much easier time identifying lean meats.

What you won't be able to do is compare these numbers with those for fish. The USDA does not oversee seafood. That's the domain of the FDA, which doesn't require nutrition labeling for fresh seafood. It's voluntary—along with labeling of fresh fruits and vegetables. Notice the irony: Some of the healthiest choices available in the grocery store are unlabeled.

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