Nutrition Action Healthletter
June 1997 — U.S. Edition


Text version

WHERE'S THE GROUND BEEF LABELING?

By BONNIE LIEBMAN

JUNE 1997 — U.S. Edition

How much saturated fat is in that Swiss cheese? How much sodium will you get from a can of chicken soup? How much fiber is in your cereal?

You can find out, of course, by checking the "Nutrition Facts" labels that appear on all foods. Well, . . . almost all foods.

Nutrition information is not required on packages of fresh meat (or poultry or seafood), even though:

"Meat contributes an extraordinarily significant percentage of the saturated fat in the American diet," say Marion Nestle, chair of the nutrition department at New York University. "Without labeling, people don't know how much."

The fresh meat that's most likely to have a nutrition label is ground beef. Yet those labels are often the most deceptive in the supermarket.

CONGRESS MAKES A DEAL

Why are labels missing from the meat counter?

In 1990, when Congress passed the nutrition labeling law, it cut some deals. Among them: In exchange for mandatory labels on almost all processed foods, Congress agree to a voluntary program for fresh meat, poultry, seafood, fruits, and vegetables.

Instead of labels on those foods, said Congress, supermarkets could post "point-of-purchase" nutrition information on posters or cards or in brochures or notebooks. And the information would only be required in 60 percent of supermarket chains (excluding small ones).

How well has the "point-of-purchase" program worked? Stores have met the 60 percent cut-off, says the FDA. The question is: Has anyone noticed?

Last April, we asked a nationally representative sample of 1,000 Americans how often they used nutrition information posted near the meat counter in their supermarkets.

Of the roughly 780 respondents who said they had primary or shared responsibility for shopping, only 29 percent said that they use the information "frequently" or "sometimes." Another 17 percent said they use it "rarely" or "never." Worse yet, 49 percent had never even seen the information.

No wonder.

STEP CLOSE AND SQUINT

We asked Nutrition Action subscribers in several cities to visit their local stores and look for information posted near the meat counter. It wasn't

The wall charts had to be pointed out to me because they were very high over the meat cases and partially covered by some store advertising," said one woman after shopping at a Randall's in Houston.

"I was unable to read the chart from a comfortable distance," said another who visited a Pathmark in Philadelphia. "I could read the chart when I stepped very close and squinted my eyes."

Many stores display "Nutri-Facts" information that's distributed by the supermarket industry's Food Marketing Institute and reviewed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). It's far from perfect.

FLUNKING THE LEAN TEST

If meat and poultry aren't labeled, are shoppers smart enough to know which cuts are lower in fat?

In 1994, the meat and supermarket industries asked a nationally representative sample of nearly 700 people to rank four kinds of ground beef from leanest to fattiest:

a) chuck

b) regular

c) round

d) sirloin

The results: More than 40 percent of shoppers didn't even know that regular ground beef has the most fat. And more than half didn't know that ground sirloin is the leanest, ground round is the second-leanest, or that ground chuck is the third-leanest. (Round steak is actually leaner than sirloin, but the USDA allows stores to add fat to "ground round"...and not to "ground sirloin.")

And it's no easier with steak, roasts, or other meat. "One reason it's so hard to cut down on saturated fat in meat is that it's invisible," says Nestle. "You can see the fat on the outside of a steak and cut it off. But you can't see most of the fat that's inside the meat."

USDA DROPS THE MEATBALL

Ground beef alone accounts for 45 percent of the beef sold in the U.S. Unlike other fresh meat, ground beef sometimes comes with nutrition claims. Unfortunately, they're often deceptive.

"What's lean in one store is not lean in another," says Sonja Connor, a dietitian at the Oregon Health Sciences Center in Portland. "I tell my patients to just ignore words like 'lean' and use the numbers instead."

For example, Big Bear, a Columbus, Ohio-area supermarket chain, sells ground beef that's labeled "lean."

It's seven percent fat by weight before cooking. At Albertson's, a large chain with stores in 19 states, including California, Florida, and Texas, the "lean" ground beef is 20 percent fat by weight.

Why does "lean" mean different things at different stores? Big Bear, to its credit, is using the definition that now applies to all poultry, seafood, and meat except ground beef.

Albertson's is using an old, industry-friendly definition. It allowed ground beef to be called "lean" or "extra lean" even if it had twice the fat of steaks, roasts, or any other meat labeled "lean."

And the USDA allows both the old and new definitions. That's not all it allows.

80 PERCENT DECEPTION

At Kroger, the country's largest supermarket chain, the ground round is labeled "85% Lean."

The USDA has said that "percent lean" claims are deceptive unless they appear on a low-fat food. Yet ground round -- with up to 11 grams of fat per serving -- misses the three gram limit for low-fat foods by a mile.

Contradiction? Nah. When it comes to ground beef, "percent lean" claims are still legit, says the USDA.

That's because, nearly seven years after the nutrition labeling law was passed and three years after it was supposed to go into effect, the USDA still hasn't decided how ground beef should be labeled.

Oh, it tried. In 1994, at the industry's urging, the USDA proposed an exemption that would have allowed "percent lean" labels on ground beef even though it isn't low in fat. When consumers and health experts squawked, the department put the issue on the back burner and left it there. The result: Labels on ground beef have stayed the way the industry wanted them.

"Once again, the USDA is caught between its mandate to protect consumers and its mandate to protect meat producers," says NYU's Marion Nestle.

NO BREAK FOR GROUND BEEF

Consumer groups like CSPI want ground beef to meet the same labeling regulations as all other foods. Why exempt any food -- much less a fatty one -- from those rules?

"In most stores, extra lean ground beef is nowhere to be found, and low-fat ground beef is an oxymoron," says Nestle.

A four-ounce serving of even "lean" beef uses up more than a day's sat fat.

"Hamburger represents the largest contributor to saturated fat of any single food," says Stephen Havas, an epidemiologist at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore. "If it's not adequately labeled, you can't expect people to reduce their intake."

The problem: Under the labeling rules for everything but ground beef, any food that declares its fat content has to put complete "Nutrition Facts" information on the label, not just on obscure brochures or posters. And the meat and supermarket industries aren't exactly enthusiastic about mandatory labels.

In April, we called or wrote to some of the largest grocery chains in the country. Only 15 said they put "Nutrition Facts" on at least some of their ground beef. Another 45 had no nutrition labels (35 didn't return our calls).

Yet without "Nutrition Facts," most people haven't a clue how much fat ground beef contains, even if the label says "20 percent fat" or "10 percent fat."

And how can shoppers compare fat percentages with the grams of fat on other labels? Worse yet, how do they compare fat percentages with the "% Daily Value" on labels?

Not too well. Exempting ground beef from the labeling rules, wrote the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) in 1994, would "open the door to more exemptions for other meat and poultry products, and result in consumer confusion . . ."

Major grocery chains like Albertson's, Dominick's, Fred Meyer, Jewel, Kroger, Wegmans, Winn-Dixie, and some Luckys and Safeways manage to put nutrition labels on their ground beef. Why can't others?

And if it's possible to put nutrition labeling on ground beef, why not put it on all fresh meat and poultry? If you agree, click here to send a letter to the USDA.

The information for this article was compiled by Juliann Goldman, Ingrid Van Tuinen, and Nutrition Action sleuths around the country.


[Nutrition Action Healthletter] [Press Release on Ground Beef] [CSPI Home Page]

Nutrition Action Healthletter