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[Flickr: ilovebutter]

When I come across a new-looking food in the supermarket, one of the first things I do is check the Nutrition Facts. It has become second nature for many consumers to keep an eye on the various fats, nutrients, and vitamins in the vast majority of foods that get such labeling. But it's often difficult or impossible to determine this information for raw meat, as nutrition labels are often absent. New rules passed by the USDA last week will necessitate nutrition labeling on raw meat, providing more accessible information for consumers.

Labeling was mandated for most food products in the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act, which passed in 1990. However, this legislation only applies to foodstuffs under the purview of the FDA. The USDA wrote up similar legislation for meat and poultry products in 1990, but labeling was voluntary. The new rules, issued on December 29, will "require nutrition labeling of the major cuts of single-ingredient, raw meat and poultry products."

Agricultural Secretary Tom Vilsack applauded the new rules, stating that the goal of the program is to provide consumers with as much information about the foods they are eating as possible. Ideally, labels will help Americans "make good solid decisions about how many calories they're consuming and how much activity they need."

Indeed, some consumers may be surprised if they give labels a closer look. We often hear that red meats are particularly high in fat; the labels will illustrate those concerns. A four-ounce portion of ground beef, for example, has 190 calories, more than half of them from fat. While the meat clearly also packs a protein punch and provides many other nutrients, saturated fat intake is important to monitor. If they so wish, consumers will now have an easier time of calculating the health consequences of their hamburgers.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest has taken a stance against the labeling standards. One of the CSPI's concerns is that nutrition facts are for a four-ounce portion, even when the meat being sold is a single serving package that is over fur ounces (such as a steak). Less scrupulous consumers could then be misled and underestimate the calories or fat in their portion of meat.

Professor and food policy expert Marion Nestle also takes up issue with the four-ounce serving size provided on labels. Current dietary guidelines call for two to three servings a day of meat or meat substitutes, for a total of four to nine ounces. Increasing serving sizes could lead to recommended daily intake of up to 12 ounces of meat per day—an amount higher than recommended by most health professionals.

While there are qualms with the new labeling, consumers will now have full access to information that previously could have most easily been found on the internet rather than on the package. The labels may have little impact on meat consumption in real terms, but the USDA's decision to make labeling mandatory reflects a desire to increase transparency and perhaps to increase daily recommended meat intake. When the 2010 dietary guidelines are released, it will be interesting to see how meat factors in to the USDA's conception of an ideal daily diet.

About the Author: A student in Providence, Rhode Island, Leah Douglas loves consuming and learning about as much food as possible. Her work is also featured in Rhode Island Monthly Magazine. She blogs at Feasting on Providence.

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