WASHINGTON (FNS) -- A nutrition watchdog group has asked the United States Department of Agriculture to require retailers to label ground beef under the same federal nutrition regulations that govern most other food.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest here is protesting the continued use of the old USDA definitions under which ground beef can be labeled as being "lean." All other meat is required by the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act to follow certain percentage fat limits when labeled with such superlatives as "lean" (no more than 10% fat) and "extra lean" (5%).
Ground beef continues to operate by the old rules that allow products containing 22.5% fat to be called "lean." The rules also allow ground beef to make a percentage declaration such as "50% less fat" based on the rule that ground products can't contain more than 30% fat. In such a case, the CSPI notes that an uncooked
4-ounce serving of ground beef with 50% less fat still contains 16 grams of fat.
Since ground beef is a mixture -- as opposed to a whole muscle piece of meat in which it's easy to judge fat content -- the CSPI would like it to also undergo nutritional analysis, which is required of other processed food by the four-year-old NLEA.
"How can shoppers compare those fat percentages on ground beef with the grams of fat on other labels?" asked Bonnie Liebman, director of nutrition at the CSPI.
The debate over how best to identify the fat content of ground meat has been going on since the NLEA went into effect. Ground beef is exempt from the NLEA on a temporary basis since the USDA hasn't been able to settle differences on the issue. Retailers and the meat industry would like the old definition to remain in place.
"At this point we haven't been able to solve this to the satisfaction of the industry or the consumer groups," a USDA spokeswoman said. "Our concern remains that the claims be accurate."
The agency is currently trying to reach a consensus, and that's why the CSPI has again weighed in.
A spokeswoman at the Food Marketing Institute here said the current definitions under which ground meat is labeled "lean," or is identified as having a lower percentage of fat than other ground meats, aren't misleading.
The FMI said it would be impossible to run a nutrition analysis on ground beef since it's not packaged with a standard formula. Furthermore, no analysis would be able to capture the true fat content of ground meat, since cooked ground beef generally has less fat than raw.
"It's difficult to provide a standard piece of information on one label that would account for all the different cooking conditions, trimming, etc.," she said. "What CSPI is proposing seems like a step backward.
"Consumers need information. They happen to like, based on our research, the percent fat and percent lean designation."
In a letter to the USDA, the CSPI urged the agency to act with speed. "For four years the USDA had done little to ensure that consumers get complete and honest information about the fat content of ground beef. Until the department gets rid of its double standards, consumers will get the false impression that the largest source of saturated fat in the average American's diet is a healthful food," the letter stated.