WASHINGTON - The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has urged the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to require nutrition labels on all fresh meat and poultry. The Center also called on the department to ban claims like “80 percent lean” or “85 percent lean” on fresh ground meat or poultry unless it is low in fat.

     In January, 2001, the USDA proposed a rule that would allow supermarkets to display nutrition information for most fresh meat and poultry on posters and brochures instead of requiring packages to carry the same “Nutrition Facts” labels that are found on almost all other foods in the supermarket.

     “It is inexcusable that the USDA doesn’t plan to require ‘Nutrition Facts’ labels on most fresh meat and poultry packages”, said Bonnie Liebman, CSPI director of nutrition. “Meat is one of the largest sources of saturated fat in the average American’s diet, and millions of consumers are under doctors’ orders to eat less saturated fat to reduce their risk of heart disease. Yet shoppers still can’t pick up a package of roast, steak, chops, or other meats and find out how much saturated fat or calories it contains. Brochures and posters with nutrition information are so difficult to read and use that they’re worthless.”

     The USDA’s proposal would also exempt ground meat and poultry from rules on claims like “80% lean” or “85% lean.” Because those claims imply that a food is low in fat, the USDA currently prohibits them unless they appear on low-fat foods. But, at the urging of the meat industry, the USDA wants to create a special exemption to allow those claims on all ground meats and poultry.

     “Millions of Americans who purchase ground beef labeled ‘80 percent lean’ may think they are following health experts’ advice to eat lean meat,” said Liebman. “In fact, ‘80 percent lean’ ground beef is one of the fattiest meats available.”

     On June 29, Nita M. Lowey (D-NY) and 17 other Members of Congress wrote to USDA Secretary Ann M. Veneman urging that all fresh meat and poultry have the same nutrition labels as those now required for hot dogs, sausage, frozen dinners and other processed meat and poultry. In separate comments to the USDA, the American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association, the American Public Health Association, the Consumer Federation of America, the National Consumers League, and eight other consumer and health groups supported CSPI’s position.

     The USDA has told CSPI that during the last few months it has received about 5,000 comments from individuals, and almost all of them want nutrition labels on all fresh meat and poultry and the elimination of the loophole for “percent lean” claims on fresh ground meat and poultry.

     In 1993, both USDA and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) prohibited the use of  “percent lean” claims on a food unless it is low in fat (no more than 3 grams of fat per serving for most foods). However, in August, 1994, the USDA postponed indefinitely the effective date for applying the “percent lean” rules to ground beef. Ground beef labeled 80% lean or 85% lean is not “low-fat” or “lean” because it contains about 14 to 16 grams of fat when cooked.

     “It is time for the current Bush Administration to finish what the first Bush Administration began — requiring nutrition labels on all meat and poultry and closing the loophole for deceptive ‘percent lean’ labels on fresh ground meat and poultry,” said Benjamin Cohen, CSPI senior staff attorney.