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For Immediate
May 20, 1999

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  Health Group Criticizes USDA’s Delay in Requiring Nutrition Labeling for Meat

WASHINGTON - A national consumer group today charged that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) kept secret a 1996 survey that should have triggered a process leading to mandatory nutrition labeling on ground beef and other raw meat and poultry.

A 1993 USDA regulation requires that if less than 60% of grocery stores provide nutrition information for raw meat and poultry, USDA must propose regulations for mandatory labeling. USDA has not yet acted, but has indicated it plans to in the coming year.

In a letter to USDA Secretary Dan Glickman, the Center for Science in the Public Interest accused USDA of  “a serious breach of regulations ” and urged USDA to require “Nutrition Facts” labels for all ground beef, steaks, chops, and other raw meat and poultry.

A CSPI survey of major supermarket chains found that several, including Safeway, Albertson’s, Lucky, Jewel, and Winn-Dixie already provide “Nutrition Facts” labels on all of their ground beef.

“Red meat is one of the biggest sources of artery-clogging saturated fat for Americans,” said Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of CSPI. “Consumers need labels that clearly state how much fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and other nutrients meat contains.”

A 1990 law mandated nutrition labeling on almost all foods, except for fresh meat, poultry, seafood, fruits, and vegetables. Instead of labels on those foods, supermarkets can display a small nutrition poster or provide brochures. Every two years, USDA is required to determine the level of participation in that voluntary program. If at least 60% of a representative sampling of stores do not provide nutrition information for at least 90% of the major cuts of meat and poultry sold, USDA is required to initiate a rulemaking to require nutrition labeling.

“USDA’s failure to propose mandatory nutrition labeling for all fresh meat and poultry is not just poor policy, it’s illegal,” added Bruce Silverglade, CSPI’s director of legal affairs. “An agency must comply with its own regulations.”

“Even if every supermarket participated, the voluntary ‘labeling’ program would be worthless,” said Jacobson. “If a store bothers to display a poster, the print is small and difficult to read. Even if you can read it, the information is of little use because it doesn’t disclose how much of the recommended Daily Values for fat and other nutrients a serving of meat supplies.”

In its letter to USDA, CSPI also cited the agency’s failure to protect the public from misleading claims that the agency allows only on ground-beef labels:

  • “Lean” claims - CSPI asked USDA to close a five-year-old loophole that exempts ground beef from the same rules for “lean” claims that apply to other foods. In samples of ground beef purchased at 41 large supermarkets across the U.S., CSPI found that roughly half of the packages of “lean” ground beef failed to meet the 10%-fat limit that applies to all other “lean” meat products. For instance, at Albertsons’ stores ground beef with 20% fat was labeled “lean.”
  • “80% Lean” claims - Roughly half of the packages in CSPI’s survey had labels like “80% lean,” “85% lean,” etc. Those claims are illegal on foods that are not low in fat, but USDA has failed to apply that rule to ground beef.
“For five years, USDA’s inaction has allowed labels to mislead millions of Americans who have been trying to eat ‘lean’ meat,” said Bonnie Liebman, CSPI’s director of nutrition.

In addition, CSPI charged that USDA failed to enforce regulations that require any raw meat with more than one ingredient to bear a “Nutrition Facts” label and an ingredient list. “Supermarkets often adjust the fat content of ground beef by adding fat,” explained Silverglade. “That manipulation should trigger mandatory nutrition labeling and a label stating: ‘Ingredients: ground beef, beef fat.’”

Every major health authority, including the USDA; the Surgeon General; the National Cancer Institute; the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute; the American Heart Association; and the American Cancer Society, has urged Americans to eat less fat, especially less saturated fat. Without honest meat labels, consumers can’t follow that advice.