I’m wondering how this nutrition labeling business is going to shake out…

Shortly before the new year, USDA FSIS announced that single-ingredient meat products would require nutritional labels (just like other foods sold in the U.S.).  This has been discussed for many years and it will finally happen by January 2012.  The required labels have received much support from commodity groups, including beef and pork, involved in the U.S. meat industry – presumably because this will put more accurate nutritional information in the hands of U.S. consumers (or, to use the politically correct term, “eaters”).

Last year it was reported that the average American consumer overestimates the amount of fat in fresh meat considerably, thinking that it contains upwards of 20% fat.  Most whole muscle cuts seldom exceed 5% fat, and the only high fat “cut” is ground product.  Requiring a label on that seems sort of “uh, so what?” because fat percentage is typically included on the label (at least for ground beef), i.e. 85/15 (% lean / % fat).

The rule has been pretty thoroughly spelled out, though the labeling information and other materials a meat retailer will need are not available (at the time of the rule’s publication), FSIS estimated that such materials would be available in six month’s time.  There are some exemptions for ground products for small processors and retailers yet, the whole-muscle cuts all must have an associated label (an affixed label on each package is not required; i.e., a printed sheet that’s available for a customer to take will suffice).

Two predictable questions have come up about this.  (1) FAT CONTENT:  The of whole-muscle meat cuts varies according to trim depth (1/8” vs. 1/4″ trim, for example) and, in the case of beef, quality grade (Prime vs. Select, for example).  Further, there is no marbling component in the loosey goosey pork grading system, so where does marbling play into that?  Ah ha! USDA has a nutrition database that a retailer can consult when developing their labels.  So, there’s no problem and one won’t have to send out samples for testing everytime something is going to be sold.  But uh oh, those (at least in the case of beef) can depend on quality grade AND most small plant do not pay for the USDA grading service.  Sooooo… there will have to be some sort of “blanket” nutrition information for them to use.  [Does the nutrition label requirement seem meaningless?]

The second question stems from the folks to contend that meat from grassfed animals has a dramatically different fat profile than meat from their conventionally-reared cousins.  Aside from the grassfed products containing more saturated fat than the grainfed products (no, there’s not a typo there), the lack-of-difference between these two products when presented on a reasonable, portion basis, seems worth thinking about.  In a 3- or 4-oz portion of meat (and this is on a raw basis) the perceived magical differences are put into perspective … that they aren’t that different.  Personally, I’m waiting for someone to challenge the nutritional labeling requirement because it just lumps all meats of the same species together.

That said, if one does elect to make a special nutritional claim about a fresh meat product, the product’s claim will have to be backed up with an actual test.  It’ll be interesting to see how all of this shakes out by 01 January 2012.



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