Updated January 02, 2010The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has announced a new federal regulation requiring nutrition information labels on 40 popular cuts of beef and all poultry. That's nice, says the Center for Science in the Public Interest, but while it took the USDA 10 years to actually enact the rule, the new labels will not help consumers as much as they'll help meat and poultry producers.
Under the new USDA rule, which will not take effect until Jan. 1, 2012, packages of ground or chopped meat and poultry will feature nutrition facts panels on their labels. Along with information on calories and fat content, the new labels will feature a "lean percentage statement," such as "76% lean," which the USDA says will make it "easier for consumers to understand the amounts of lean protein and fat in their purchase."
"More and more, busy American families want nutrition information that they can quickly and easily understand," said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in a press release. "We need to do all we can to provide nutrition labels that will help consumers make informed decisions.
According to Secretary Vilsack, the USDA and the Department of Health and Human Services currently provide updated dietary guidelines every five years. "And now consumers will have another tool to help them follow these guidelines," he stated.
"Not so," says the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), noting that the new labels, which already appear on most ground beef, spent 10 years stalled in the USDA's rulemaking process and really provide "no new consumer benefit."
What Does 'Lean' Mean?
The CSPI has actually lobbied the USDA to prohibit "percent lean" statements on ground beef labels, because they tend to mislead consumers into believing that the meat is lower in fat than it really is.
"Use of the word 'lean' in the context of ground beef is designed to deceive," said CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson in a press release. "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 fattiest meats on the market. Nutrition Facts labels don't correct that deception."
Under current regulations, the Food and Drug Administration prohibits the use of the term "low fat" on the labeling of any product containing more than 3 grams of fat per serving; a level, says the CSPI, ground beef never meets.
"When consumer and health organizations opposed "percent lean" claims in the 1990s, USDA shelved its proposed rule. Now the agency is allowing the claims because, it says, consumers are used to seeing them," stated the CSPI.
"USDA should err on the side of protecting consumers' health," CPSI's Jacobson said. "But I fear that when the food industry wants one thing and consumers another, consumers get the short end of the stick."