Meat eaters will soon know the nutrition facts on their favorite cuts of beef, pork and poultry, whether they want to know them or not.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that 40 popular cuts of meat would soon be required to have nutrition fact panels on their labels, much like the thousands of other products found in the grocery store. Whole, raw cuts of meat and poultry will also have nutrition fact labels, either on the package or at the point-of-purchase.
"Consumers are used to seeing these types of nutrition fact labeling on other products out there in the market, and now they can have this same important information in meat and poultry," said Dr. Elisabeth Hagen, USDA undersecretary for food safety. "We're excited to provide this tool to American consumers."
The new facts will be required on Jan. 1, 2012, and will include information much like the facts found on other grocery products, such as calorie content and total grams of fat and saturated fat.
Products that list a lean percentage must include the percentage of fat in the product, as well. The USDA hopes that this added number will help consumers better understand the amount of lean protein versus fat in the meat.
"This is long overdue," said Dr. Peter McCullough, chief academic and scientific officer for St. John Providence Health System in Detroit. "The more comprehensive reporting we have regarding nutritional content, the better."
Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, chairwoman of the FDA and Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, said that the new rule would help consumers make more informed choices for their families.
"Our country is facing an obesity epidemic, and if we are to make any progress against this problem, it is critical that consumers have access to nutrition information about the foods they buy at restaurant said grocery stores," DeLauro said in a statement.
And Beth Kitchin, assistant professor of nutrition sciences at University of Alabama at Birmingham, was also happy to see the change.
"This is good because meats have always been under the jurisdiction of the USDA, and it seems that there was always some special privileges because of that," said Kitchin. "I think everything should be labeled."
Too Much Meat
"Most Americans eat more meat than they should," said Dr. David Katz, director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center. "Meat is a significant component of the typical American diet. Consequently, the specific meats chosen can have a substantial influence on overall diet quality."
Different kinds and cuts of meat have a broad range of calories, fat and saturated fat. A 3-ounce piece of cooked chicken contains 160 calories, 7 grams of fat and 2 grams of saturated fat. A 3-ounce piece of cooked beef roast contains 290 calories, 8 grams of fat and 3 grams of saturated fat. Ground beef can contain as little as 5 and up to 30 percent fat.
Because of the discrepancies, doctors said it can be difficult for consumers to know which meats are the healthiest and unhealthiest choices.
High-fat red meats tend to be the most harmful because they contain the most saturated fat, said Christine Tenekjian, a registered dietitian at Duke University Medical Center's Diet and Fitness Center in Durham, N.C. But sausages and ribs can also be incredibly high in fat and saturated fat.
"I see a lot of people who are confused about different kinds of meat, and how many calories and how much fat is in each of them," said Tenekjian. "Right now, we have to give general guidelines, but having label requirements is going to make it really helpful for dieticians and the clients we serve."
We've got the Labels, Now What?
But meat nutrition labels are not the golden ticket to a healthier America, doctors say. Once the facts are in front of consumers, it's still important to spread nutrition knowledge and education so people understand the numbers they're reading.
"We really need to conduct very good research and focus groups to see what is most useful to people when reading food labels at the ground level," said Kitchin. "A lot of times, it's the percentages that confuse people."
And Katz said that, for all the information listed on that little piece of paper, nutrition labels tend to have a limited effect on a consumer's food choice.
"Partly, [this is] because peopled don't know how to translate nutrition facts into an overall conclusion," said Katz. "If we give people nutrition information they truly understand, and make it actionable, then it does influence eating habits."
To help consumers, Katz and other nutrition experts created the NuVal scoring system, where a food is rated between one and 100 in overall nutritional value. The higher the number scored, the more nutritious the food.
"When the information we provide does not influence habits, we cannot assume that means people don't care, it may simply mean we have given them facts, but not knowledge," said Katz. "Knowledge requires a step beyond facts. It requires interpretation of facts."
The Center for Science in the Public Interest said that most ground beef already has such facts, and the label, 'lean,' can be misleading for many consumers. Because of this, the group had urged the USDA to prohibit 'percent lean' statements on ground meat labels.
In a statement, the CSPI said that consumers often believe they're eating a low-fat meat when they buy something that is 80 percent lean, when it's really one of the fattiest meats out there.
Small Biz Exemption
But despite the new guidelines, there are a few exceptions to the rule. The USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service exempts ground or chopped products produced by small business, products that are custom slaughtered or prepared, and those that are ground or chopped at an individual customer's request.
The USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service states: to qualify for the exemption, a retail store must be a single retail store that employs 500 or few people or a multi-retail store that employs 500 or fewer people and produces no more than 100,000 pounds of group product each year. There is no small business exemption from the nutrition labeling requirements for the major cuts of single-ingredient, raw meat and poultry products because the requirements should not impose an economic hardship on small businesses.
Some meat organizations say that small-business owners may be negatively affected by the new rules.
Jay Wenther, executive director of the American Association of Meat Processors, is concerned by the limited time frame to get things in order.
"Many of the small businesses we support don't have access to the Internet and may not even have a computer in their shop," said Wenther. "We were hoping for a longer implementation period, so this might be a struggle for some businesses out there."
A lot of people are confused by who is and who is not exempt," continued Wenther. "And also by the point-of-purchase label material. Does this just mean a big poster with general nutrition information? Or a notebook full of labels that can be given to the customer upon request?"
Hagen said that the USDA plans to work directly with the industry so that everyone involved will understand the new regulations. And, in response to the point-of-purchase confusion, Hagen said she assumes that small cards with nutrition information could be available for consumers or information clearly posted with the food displays.
This is all meant to "give consumers information to make the best choices," said Hagen. "To have the best information to make choices about what goes into the makeup of their dinner plate every night."