USDA To Require Nutrition Labels On Meat

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Beginning in 2012, the U.S. Department of Agriculture will require food labels on 40 of the most common cuts of raw beef and poultry. Everything from hamburger to chicken patties would include information about calories, cholesterol and fat. For more, NPR's Audie Cornish speaks to Steve Kay, editor and publisher of the trade publication Cattle Buyers Weekly.

AUDIE CORNISH, host:

It's that time of year again when you gear up for the obligatory New Year's resolution to eat right. Well, while you're checking those nutrition labels on the soda and salad dressing, you might be reminded there's one food that doesn't have that information on it - meat. It's a point that's been discussed in Washington for two decades, and now its finally slated to happen.

Beginning in 2012, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is requiring food labels on 40 of the most common cuts of raw beef and poultry. Everything from hamburger to chicken patties would include information about calories, cholesterol and fat.

Steve Kay joins us. He's editor and publisher of Cattle Buyers Weekly, which provides news to the beef industry. Hi there, Steve.

Mr. STEVE KAY (Editor/Publisher, Cattle Buyers Weekly): Yes, good afternoon, Audie.

CORNISH: Now, I read the meat industry essentially fought against nutrition labeling for much of the early '90s. So what's changed?

Mr. KAY: Well, I have a different perspective. I think that if you talk to people within the meat industry, they'd say theyve long supported transparency in nutrition labeling since the 1980s. The beef industry certainly joined with other stakeholders to form what they called the Nutrition Labeling Coalition for Meat and Poultry. And that actually directly led to the U.S. Department of Agriculture proposing rules in the late 1980s, which took effect in 1993, to have compulsory labeling on cooked meat products. But they only had voluntary labeling on uncooked products and that's now being rectified, as you said.

CORNISH: So explain, why now are we going to finally see labeling on raw meat products?

Mr. KAY: USDA finally realized that the current voluntary labeling program for raw products really wasn't being supported. That's really because there's a commercial aspect to it, that retailers and suppliers of the meat industry really weren't going to put on a label because its added cost, unless they were required to.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, realizing there wasn't what they called significant participation, was obliged to require such labels, and so they've now followed through on that.

CORNISH: So describe, what kind of detail are we going to see on these labels?

Mr. KAY: The nutrition panels will include the number of calories and grams of total fat and saturated fat that a product contains. And that's going to be of enormous value to consumers, who probably have absolutely no idea at the moment what's in their beef or pork or chicken, even.

And then I think also importantly, any product that currently lists a lean percentage statement, such as 76 percent lean - and that's mostly on, say, ground beef - anything that lists that on its label will also have to list the fat percentage. So that would make it easier for consumers to understand the amounts of lean protein and fat in their purchase.

CORNISH: So, Steve, what were some of the issues that had to be at haggled out between the industry and the USDA?

Mr. KAY: Well, I think primarily it's a question of cost. And that may sound, you know, a little mercenary. But I think the industry, as well as retailers, were concerned about what cost it might be for them. U.S. Department of Agriculture, they have to do a cost-benefit analysis on any rule, they say that the costs of this nutritional labeling will be about 10 and a half to nearly $11 million a year, and that's really very little.

CORNISH: For the whole industry, you're saying.

Mr. KAY: The whole industry. And they're saying that the benefits will be 75 and a half to just over 91 million a year. And that's based on what they call the value of lives saved by the new nutritional laws.

CORNISH: So who's exempt from this rule? I mean, I have to imagine that these cost concerns would be tough for smaller producers.

Mr. KAY: That's a good question. Some smaller processors are exempt, as they are under the Food Safety Act that was just passed, ironically. And, you know, there's actually a lot of opposition in the meat processing industry to any exemption, saying that everybody who produces a product should be bound by food safety rules. And in this case, should also be bound by nutrition labeling rules. But very small processors are exempt and then, therefore their products.

CORNISH: Thats Steve Kay. He's editor and publisher of Cattle Buyers Weekly in Petaluma, California. Thanks, Steve.

Mr. KAY: You're very welcome.

CORNISH: Cattle Buyers Weekly provides news to the beef industry.

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