The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has released final rules for the labeling of meat and poultry but -- unfortunately -- according the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), the rules provide no new consumer benefit.

Under the rules, packages of ground beef -- a major source of saturated fat -- and ground poultry must bear Nutrition Facts labels by January 2012. However, CSPI sys most ground beef already has such labeling.

Matter of semantics

The group had urged USDA to prohibit "percent lean" statements on labels of ground meat. CSPI says its research shows the term "lean" misleads consumers into thinking that, say, "80 percent lean" ground beef is lower in fat than it really is. The term "low fat," as defined by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), could not be used on products that contain more than three grams of fat per serving, a level that no ground beef meets.

When consumer and health organizations opposed "percent lean" claims in the 1990s, USDA shelved its proposed rule. Now the agency is allowing the claims because, it says, consumers are used to seeing them.

"Use of the word 'lean' in the context of ground beef is designed to deceive," says CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson. "The meat industry has insisted on labeling ground meat that way to make ground beef appear leaner. Consumers assume that they are following advice to eat lean meat when they purchase ground beef that is 80 percent lean, yet it is one of the fattiest meats on the market. Nutrition Facts labels don't correct that deception."

Not enough

For steaks, chops, roasts, and other cuts of meat, USDA is requiring nutrition information either on labels or on signs in supermarkets. To date, supermarkets have always chosen to post signs rather than use labels.

CSPI says the signs are hard to find, difficult to decipher, and show nutrition information for relatively puny 4-ounce servings, thereby understating the calorie and fat content of typical servings of steaks. Many consumers actually eat steaks that weigh two, three, or four times the official USDA serving size.

'Missed opportunity'

"It's too bad that USDA missed an opportunity to give consumers easy-to-use, on-package information about how many calories and how much saturated fat is in steaks, roasts, and other cuts of meat," Jacobson said.

CSPI had urged the agency to require that single-serving packages of meat -- one steak, say -- bear nutrition information for the whole cut as sold. Alternatively, said CSPI, labels could have stated, "Nutrition Facts are based on a 4-oz. serving. This package contains multiple servings."

"USDA should err on the side of protecting consumers' health," Jacobson said. "But I fear that when the food industry wants one thing and consumers another, consumers get the short end of the stick."