Understanding new meat labels

By Jo Ellen Helmlinger

More than 20 years after the first nutrition labels were required on most grocery products, fresh meat will join the group. The final rule from USDA that was so long in coming goes into effect in March, and requires nutrition labeling of the major cuts of single-ingredient raw meat and poultry products either on the label or at the point of purchase using signs or brochures. In addition, ground or chopped meat and poultry products must have labels on the packages.

Understanding the labels

Labeling meat with nutrition information is challenging because the amount of fat and nutrients can vary depending on the grade of the meat, how it is trimmed, the breed of the animal and other factors. The information on the label reflects the percentage of grades from choice through select, with a 1/8-inch trim of fat, available at most supermarkets.

Also, the nutrition numbers are based on 3-ounce portions of cooked meat even though you usually buy meat raw. Sidney Fry, dietitian for Cooking Light magazine said consumers will have to do some math to figure out the servings for cooked portions. For example, 2 pounds of raw chuck roast shrinks by about 25% in cooking, yielding 24 ounces of cooked meat or eight 3-ounce servings. Another point is that the cooking calculation is an average of all types of preparation methods from grilling, where more fat may drain away, to braising, where fat stays in the pot.

For ground meats, consumers will find that the percentage of lean to fat is easier to determine with the new labels.  The best information is the listing of saturated fat which ranges from 2.5 grams for ground sirloin to 13 grams for ground chuck.

Exemptions

Products intended for further processing, that are not for sale to consumers or weigh less than one-half ounce, don’t need labeling as long as no nutrition claims are made for the products. Ground or chopped products produced by a company that qualifies for a small business exemption, and products ground or chopped at a customer’s request are also exempt.

One of the problems with the labeling requirement is that USDA used guidelines from the 1990s to identify major meat cuts and they don’t always take into account new shopping habits or food trends. For example, beef flank steak, beef short ribs and chicken tenders do not have to be labeled because they are considered non-major cuts even though these cuts are popular with today’s shoppers.

Meat is a nutritious part of a well-rounded diet. Here are some recipes to put meat on your table.

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