What’s in a Label? USDA Establishes New Packaging Standards

While everyone likes to assume that they know what goes into the food they buy and prepare, there’s actually a great knowledge gap, especially when it comes to meat. Rarely does a label tell you much more than type of cut, how much it weighs, and how much it costs. There’s also the grade, which is currently a voluntary labeling system that the USDA pays for in which a cut of beef is rated Prime, Choice, or Select, all of which sound good, though Prime is a better rating than Choice, which is a better rating than Select. The grade goes down to include Utility, Cutter and Canner beef as well.

As a consequence of this information void, the USDA has set a new rule to require many of the most popular cuts of meat and poultry to have clear, standardized labels or equivalent information available at the point of purchase effective January 1st, 2012. The new labels will list calories, total fat, and saturated fat as well as the percentage of lean protein and fat meat in a packaged cut. Affected cuts include single-ingredient packages (such as chicken pieces or individual steaks), as well as chopped meats and poultry like hamburger and ground chicken. Pork, lamb, and veal will also be included under the label change.

The Food Safety and Inspection Service has stated that they are providing detailed information so that buyers can be informed as they try to maintain a balanced diet for themselves and their families. Furthermore, few producers of meat currently provide this information to consumers, whereas virtually any food product that contains multiple ingredients or contains cooked meat already provides this information on the mandatory Nutrition Facts labels.  Another point brought up in the Federal Register press release is the fact that steaks and other cuts of meat have clearly visible fat, whereas ground meats do not, making it difficult for a prospective buyer to get a meaningful estimate of the product’s fat content.

While recent legislation surrounding food safety has been criticized for being too restrictive and potentially devastating for small producers, farmers’ markets, and family farmers, the new FSIS rules are grounded in good sense. It’s often difficult, especially when purchasing meat in grocery stores, to know where it is sourced from. Though expanded labels do not necessarily address this problem, they do provide the exact caloric content of the food and, by extension, the short-term health effects of choosing to purchase and eat it—something consumers haven’t been privy to in most mainstream grocery stores.

Ground meat in particular has always been alarmingly ambiguous in makeup, as its quality and nutritional value can vary so drastically based on what cut it was before grounding. This updated labeling system will likely have the most impact upon purchasers of ground products, who will now have a much better grasp (when not purchasing directly from the producer) of what part of the animal they are buying when they buy “hamburger.”

As we move into the 2010s, we enter a decade in which the epidemic of childhood obesity and nutrition-related preventable disease is being put on the table by everyone from Jamie Oliver to First Lady Michelle Obama. As a consequence, we’re likely to see health and nutrition policy change considerably in an attempt to simultaneously fight against and work with mass food producers; expanded labels may be just the beginning of a push towards more informed consumerism.

Gerald Arnolds is a guest blogger for An Apple a Day and a writer on earning your online nursing degree for the Guide to Health Education.

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