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New Meat Labeling Hits Grocery Stores
By Juliann Schaeffer

Thanks to new labeling guidelines for fresh meat and poultry that have been introduced in supermarkets across the country, consumers now have access to another tool to help them make healthier food decisions while grocery shopping.

What to Expect
The guidelines, which debuted in March, stipulate that fresh ground meat and poultry products sold at most retailers nationwide must bear a Nutrition Facts panel on packaging. “Prior to the implementation of these guidelines, nutrition labeling for meat and poultry was only required on packages of multi-ingredient and heat-processed meat and poultry products,” including items such as prepackaged deli meats and hot dogs, says Shalene McNeill, PhD, RD, executive director of human nutrition research for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. The association contracts to manage programs for the Beef Checkoff, a producer-funded marketing and research program designed to increase domestic and/or international demand for beef.

In addition, “The 40 most popular whole, raw cuts of meat and poultry, including chicken breast or steak, also will have nutrition information available in store or on packages for consumers,” says Kim Kirchherr, MS, RD, LDN, CDE, corporate dietitian for SUPERVALU. If not listed directly on meat and poultry packaging, this information will be found on posters or brochures available at the point of purchase.

However, there are a few exceptions. Consumers shouldn’t expect to see labeling on nonmajor cuts of meat, such as beef short ribs, or raw gourmet burgers prepared in-store that have cheese or other additions that aren’t seasonings.

McNeill says ground meat labels will be similar to those found on other packaged foods, displaying total calories, calories from fat, total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, total carbohydrate, etc. For the whole meat and poultry cuts, labeling requirements will be somewhat different. “For whole muscle meat and poultry, consumers can expect a range of options that may or may not include an on-pack Nutrition Facts panel,” she says. “For example, a poster containing nutrition information for various cuts may be displayed in the meat case.”

One major difference for all meat labeling: the absence of “number of servings per package” information “because [meats are] considered random-weight products by the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service,” McNeill says. Nutrition information will still be based on a stated serving size; however, McNeill suggests RDs use this information to stress the importance of portion size to clients.

Another difference to note is that the new guidelines allow nutrition information to be presented either “as packaged” (meaning raw) or “as consumed” (meaning after it’s been cooked). “If presented ‘as packaged,’ the nutrition information will be based on a 4-oz raw serving. However, because of losses of moisture and fat during cooking, a 4-oz raw serving of meat or poultry typically results in a 3-oz cooked serving,” McNeill says. “Dietitians will want to familiarize themselves with the consumed serving sizes of lean cuts of beef, recommending [clients] trim visible fat to further increase leanness.”

Benefits to Consumers
Access to this type of information will benefit consumers in numerous ways, such as by increasing the public’s awareness of lean animal-based proteins, which “is an important step toward helping consumers make smart choices in the meat case to achieve nutrient-dense, energy-balanced dietary patterns consistent with the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans,” McNeill says.

In addition to bolstering public awareness of what’s in its protein sources, the labels illustrate how different cuts of meat can contain vastly different calorie and fat counts, according to Kirchherr. “Numbers put reality into the conversation instead of just talking in broad terms,” she says. “Even if a consumer doesn’t count calories, the new labels give the option of comparison, cut to cut, so they can learn about the food choices they’re making.”

Kirchherr hopes the new labeling will help consumers choose the right options for their particular situation, something that wasn’t so easy before. “With meat products, the cut and type will determine the difference in fat. Previously, without the nutritionals, a consumer might not have been as able to determine the higher saturated fat content.

“Knowledge is always power and by having it at point of purchase, consumers are better informed as they make the choices for their meals,” she adds. “This also will help them perhaps pair up a higher-fat, higher-calorie protein with lower-cal, lower-fat side dishes to serve a better meal. It’s a great talking point for dietitians to discuss the total meal and total day and how to fit favorites in.”

And according to McNeill, consumers likely will use this new information. “Survey data suggests that consumers readily access and use the information on nutrition labels—in fact, the 2010 International Food Information Council survey results indicate that 68% of consumers use the Nutrition Facts panel when making food and beverage purchasing decisions,” she says. “These new regulations will help end the long-standing mystery around the nutrient composition of meat and poultry products and help consumers make informed decisions at the meat case.”

What to Tell Clients
You’ll be seeing these new nutrition labels in stores, so be sure to give clients the heads up about this information. But how should you educate clients about the new labeling requirements?

“The new labeling rule gives RDs a new opportunity to use nutrition labels to educate their clients about how to make the most nutritious choices from the meat case,” McNeill says.

But context is paramount. “It’s important that RDs help provide context around the information to help guide their clients to the many lean cuts available given some of the limitations in the labeling, such as lack of serving size information, cuts labeled ‘as packaged’ vs. ‘as consumed,’ and the fact that the identification of the complete fatty acid profile is optional,” she says. Clearing up the confusion for consumers will help them make better choices when they’re at the counter.

Kirchherr says mentioning saturated fat content when educating clients will only help consumers choose better options. “Keeping saturated fat to a minimum is an important part of navigating the meat case successfully as part of a balanced diet,” she says.

“The new labels make this much easier to give concrete advice,” she continues, adding that telling consumers this information is available will help them make healthier choices, as people who buy similar products each week may rethink their decisions with the added nutritional insight.

In general, Heather R. Mangieri, MS, RD, CSSD, LDN, owner of NutritionCheckUP, LLC, and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, suggests telling clients to look for cuts of meat that provide the best nutrient bang for the calorie buck.  “For example, when it comes to beef, those cuts that include the word ‘round’ are the lowest in fat, with ‘loin’ being a close second,” she says. “In poultry, dark meat has more fat than white meat. We can show our clients using a food label how to identify that.”

— Juliann Schaeffer is an associate editor at Great Valley Publishing Company and a frequent contributor to Today’s Dietitian.