Consumers are one step closer to getting nutrition information with the fresh beef they buy at retail grocery stores. That's good news for U.S. beef producers, as research shows consumers exposed to this information generally believe beef is healthy and buy more as a result.

USDA sent a final rule on mandatory nutrition labeling for ground meat and poultry, as well as single-ingredient meat products, to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) for review Jan. 12. OMB was to provide comments by April 12, with final retail implementation likely to ensue over the following 18 months.

The rule will require on-package, nutrition labeling for ground beef, and either on-package or point-of-sale information for other commonly consumed fresh beef cuts.

The industry has generally supported this move. Research conducted in two major retail chains in 2003 found meat-case nutrition information improved attitudes about beef products. It concluded that using nutrition information on packages or at point of sale to educate consumers about the nutritional value of beef not only increases shoppers' belief that beef is healthy for them, but also beef sales.

The 16-week, checkoff-funded test was conducted in Harris Teeter, a 150-store chain based in Charlotte, NC, and Fryes, a 108-store Kroger chain based in Phoenix, AZ. It provided messages on the important roles zinc, iron, protein and B-vitamins play in healthy lifestyles, and pointed out beef is a natural source of these nutrients.

Results showed a third of consumers believe beef is, or might be, healthier for them, while 35% said they'd be much more likely or somewhat more likely to shop a store with nutrition information available. Only 1-2% of respondents thought beef was, or might be, less healthful to them.

In addition, beef sales were higher at stores using nutrition information than at control stores.

“We support this regulation because we see it as an excellent marketing opportunity for beef,” says Mary Young, executive director of nutrition for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA).

The retail industry supports nutrition labeling, as well. “It makes for a happy customer,” says Dagmar Farr, Food Marketing Institute group vice president of legislative and consumer affairs. “It seems to me you can't have a better marketing strategy than that.”

Young says the government's new nutrition guidelines focus on nutrient density. Because beef has an excellent package of nutrients for the calories it provides, the potential for further improving beef's image is excellent.

Voluntary to mandatory

The new regulation is actually a modification of the 1994 FDA law that established nutrition labeling on commonly consumed food products. Called the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act, fresh whole-muscle meats, ground meat and poultry were exempted at the time in favor of a voluntary program to be evaluated biennially to assure more than 60% of retailers participated.

A change in the law became necessary when voluntary compliance failed, says Robert Post, Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) director of labeling and protection staff. While a 1995 evaluation found 66.5% of retailers were participating, tests in December 1996 and October 1999 found 57.7% and 54.8% participation, respectively.

Post says the industry expected the implementation of mandatory labeling, and prepared for the move by forming the Meat and Poultry Nutrition Labeling Coalition. Its members include the national trade groups for beef, pork, poultry, lamb, meat processors and grocers. The groups are cooperating to prepare the materials retailers will need once the rule becomes law, with the aim to ensure consumers get the complete nutrition story and aren't misled.

“We've been working in a very cooperative way with the coalition,” Post says. “Their representatives have met with me and my staff to provide comments” about the pending regulation.

In its comments to USDA, NCBA pointed out labeling of zinc and significant B-vitamins found in meat should be required, since they're necessary for good health and difficult to obtain from foods other than meat. Young says the list of nutrients on the Nutrition Facts label should account for important micronutrients like these that beef provides to the diet.

NCBA also supports labels on ground beef that combine “% lean/% fat” with a listing of nutrition facts. As consumers already understand this terminology and use it to make their ground beef purchases, it will allow them to determine how a serving of ground beef fits into the overall diet.

Young says the coalition is encouraging FSIS to allow retailers to calculate nutrition data for ground beef with atypical fat/lean combinations. Currently, USDA provides five percentage intervals, but 96% and 97% lean ground beef is commonly available in many parts of the country.

While consumers visually can gauge the amount of fat in whole-muscle cuts, the amount of fat in ground beef can be difficult to assess. That's the rationale for on-package nutrition labeling for ground meats and the option for on-package or point-of-sale information for whole-muscle cuts.

Walt Barnhart is president of Carnivore Communications LLC, Denver, CO, and a former communications director of NCBA.

Beef's retail nutrition history

Since the mid 1980s, the meat industry has helped ensure consumers have accurate nutrition information on its products in grocery stores.

A “Nutri-Facts” program, for instance, was developed by the National Live Stock and Meat Board in cooperation with the American Meat Institute and Food Marketing Institute from 1985-1987. It provided nutrition data and materials on beef, pork and lamb to stores to share with customers.

In the late 1980s, beef checkoff funds helped update USDA's database on lean beef products. It also enabled work with the American Dietetics Association to update the Nutri-Facts program to conform to the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act. In the late 1990s, it conducted additional research to update USDA's database for ⅛-in.-trim beef and lean ground beef.

More recently, checkoff-funded research provided nutrition information on new “Beef Value Cuts,” which have increased the value of the chuck and round. That, in turn, should increase the number of cuts recognized as lean by the government. USDA's release of the information is expected this summer.