After 10 years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is updating the nutrition labels consumers see on 40 meat and poultry products, from chicken thighs to ground beef. The new rules don't take effect until 2012, though.
At that time, in a first, consumers will be able to compare meats based on nutrition facts stickers, similar to those on packaged foods. Information on the labels will include basics like calorie counts, grams of total fat and grams of saturated fat facts that have been absent from most whole meat products. Any meats advertising what percentage "lean" it is, must also state what percentage is made up of fat.
The new rules are being greeted with heavy criticism, though, for not going far enough to inform consumers and dissuade companies from making misleading health claims. "The rules provide no new consumer benefit," in the words of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
Here's a summary of the group's major criticisms:
The words "percent lean" will remain in use, as long the corresponding percent fat is also quantified a label convention most ground beef already has. The Center for Science in the Public Interest sees the phrase as misleading. Why? The Food and Drug Administration allows the use of "low fat" only on foods that have 3 grams of fat or less per serving a standard no ground beef would meet, so the word "lean" misleads consumers into thinking they are buying a low-fat product. (A 3-ounce serving of cooked 80% lean ground beef that's about the size of a quarter pound hamburger has 6.5 grams of saturated fat and 7.9 grams of unsaturated fats, according to the USDA, and even 90% lean ground beef has about 3.5 grams of saturated fat and 4 grams of unsaturated fats per 3-ounce serving.)
"Consumers assume that they are following advice to eat lean meat when they purchase ground beef that is 80 percent lean," CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson said, "yet it is one of the fattiest meats on the market. Nutrition Facts labels don't correct that deception."
Supermarkets can comply with the new rules for major cuts of meat by posting signs in meat counters, rather than labeling individual packages something which makes the new information harder to find and act upon.
The nutritional information is based on a 3-ounce serving of cooked meat (4 ounces uncooked). While that might be the recommended serving size, many Americans eat more than a quarter pound of meat at a serving. A chicken breast weighs 6 to 8 ounces cooked, and steaks range from 6 to 12 ounces cooked, according to the group.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest has these very useful 10 tips for buying meat. Did you know, for instance, that ground turkey can contain skin (which adds fat) unless the label specifies that it's "ground turkey breast"?
Also see The Daily Green's handy guide to 9 common food label lies.
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