Meat labeling proposal due

March 20, 1991|By Judith Blake | Judith Blake,Seattle Times

Wonder how much fat you're chowing down in that hot dog or in the packaged, breaded frying chicken you picked up at the supermarket?

It's pretty hard to tell with many meat products because the majority carry no nutritional labeling.

But it looks as if that's going to change. The government is gearing up to require nutritional labeling for much meat and poultry, and expects to have a preliminary proposal ready for public comment by March 31.

Nearly 60 percent of meat and poultry products today provide no nutritional labeling, according to a survey released March 6 by the consumer group Public Voice for Food & Health Policy. The survey was conducted in supermarkets in and around Washington, D.C., where Public Voice is based.

Last year, Congress passed a sweeping labeling law that, when it takes effect in a couple of years, will require nutritional labels on most products in the supermarket.

But meat and poultry were exempted because they're regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, not by the Food and Drug Administration, which the 1990 law covered.

Public Voice says its survey shows that among processed meats, the higher-fat products are least likely to have nutritional information. For instance, high-fat beef franks usually don't have such labeling, while lower-fat chicken or turkey franks often do.

Fat is a key health concern today because experts say eating too much of it appears linked to heart disease and certain other disorders.

Public Voice contends that meat's absent nutritional labeling is particularly critical for poor people and minorities, who suffer disproportionately from heart disease, hypertension and certain cancers.

The government's tentative plan would require nutritional labeling for all processed meats.

"The meat industry enthusiastically supports the idea of nutritional labeling," said Mary Adolf, an executive of the National Livestock and Meat Board, a Chicago-based industry organization.

But when it comes to raw meat and poultry, that support has limits. Nutritional labeling would be a boon to health-conscious shoppers trying to figure out such things as which has more fat, cholesterol, iron or niacin: a T-bone steak, regular hamburger, pork roast or chicken thighs.

But the meat industry is lobbying against mandatory package labeling on fresh meat because individual cuts vary so much in size, weight and the amount of fat trimmed off by butchers. Instead, the industry favors voluntary labeling using signs or pamphlets at the meat counter, and a USDA spokesman said the government is leaning in that direction.

This would match the 1990 law's treatment of nutritional labeling for fresh fruits and vegetables.

USDA spokesman Jim Greene said the agency hopes to have a meat-labeling regulation on the books by early next year. Before then, there will be public commentary, revisions, more commentary and fine-tuning.

The preliminary "initiative" is to be published by March 31 in the Federal Register.

But what about other nutritional labeling? Who's reading it? A lot of people, according to a survey by the Food Marketing Institute, a national supermarket association.

In the 1990 survey, 81 percent of shoppers said they always or sometimes read nutritional labels on packaged foods, and about the same number said they read ingredient lists.

Even more shoppers -- 87 percent -- said they always or sometimes read nutritional labels when buying a packaged food for the first time. Again, about the same number said they read ingredient lists.

If these numbers accurately represent American consumers, it seems safe to assume that similar numbers of them would read nutritional labels on meat and poultry.

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