Nutrition Labeling: Fresh Meats
CRS Report for Congress
Received through the CRS Web
Nutrition Labeling: Fresh Meats
Donna V. Porter
Specialist in Life Sciences
Domestic Social Policy Division
Since the early 1990s, nutrition labeling information on most fresh food products
has been provided voluntarily, under the provisions of the Nutrition Labeling and
Education Act. On January 18, 2001, the U.S. Department of Agriculture proposed
mandatory nutrition labeling rules for both major cuts and raw/ground fresh meat and
poultry products. This proposal is intended to provide consumers with more information
on the fat content of the products that they are selecting in the marketplace. This report
provides background information and a brief history of the labeling issue, particularly
with regard to fresh meats, and will be updated when the new rules are final.
Following the recommendations of the 1969 White House Conference on Food,
Nutrition and Health, the federal government embarked on the initial nutrition labeling
program, in part to address concerns about hunger in America and promote consumption
of adequate amounts of key nutrients. Under existing statutory labeling provisions, the
Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Department of Agriculture (USDA)
initiated a voluntary program in 1972 to permit nutrition information on packaged food,
and processed meat and poultry products, by allowing the listing of certain information on
the food package. The information, which was required to appear in a prescribed format,
included serving size, servings per container, and certain key nutrients. The information
was mandatory only if the foods were fortified or a claim was made about the product.
FDA, which is responsible for the regulation of most food products, and USDA,
which is responsible for meat and poultry products, each developed labeling requirements
that were unique to their respective products and statutory requirements. While the
information on pre-packaged food and meat products was for the most part similar, some
differences in the labeling of these products made it difficult for consumers to compare the
nutrient profile of the foods available for purchase.
Congressional Research Service The Library of Congress
Moving Toward Mandatory Nutrition Labeling for Foods
Almost from the start of voluntary nutrition labeling, there were calls for such
information to be mandatory on all food and meat products. Consumer groups sought
mandatory declarations of the nutrient content of foods so that consumers could be fully
informed about the food products they were purchasing. Health professionals viewed this
information as particularly useful for consumers whose health required special dietary
choices to treat various chronic diseases. However, throughout the 1970s and into the
early 1980s, FDA did not believe that there was adequate scientific evidence on the
relationship between certain nutrients and specific chronic diseases for the government to
require manufacturers to provide such information on food products.
By the mid-1980s, various events led both policymakers and health professionals to
recognize the need for reform of nutrition labeling information. Numerous organizations,
both public and private, had issued dietary advice that addressed one or more specific diet
and chronic disease relationships with the intent of helping consumers to modify their
eating habits to prevent or delay the onset of these illnesses. In addition, the food industry,
which had previously opposed mandatory nutrition labeling, discovered that as consumers
were becoming more knowledgeable about diet and disease relationships, nutrition
information and claims on food products were promoting sales. By the late 1980s, about
60% of FDA-regulated packaged foods and 35% of USDA-regulated processed meats and
poultry carried nutrition information.1 However, no nutrition information was required on,
or generally provided voluntarily at the point of purchase for, fresh or frozen meats,
poultry, eggs or seafood, fruits and vegetables.
In 1988 the Surgeon General’s Report on Nutrition and Health2 was released,3
followed in 1989 by the National Academy of Sciences’ (NAS) report, Diet and Health.
Both of these landmark reports provided a comprehensive review of all the scientific
information known at that time on the relationships between dietary constituents and
various chronic diseases. In an effort to use this diet and disease information to improve
public health, the Surgeon General’s report specifically called for manufacturers to provide
more nutrient content information on their products to better inform consumers. By 1990
the third edition of the U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans was issued, which is the
government’s set of consumer “rules” for making healthful food selections.4 It was
followed by USDA’s Food Guide Pyramid, which outlined recommendations for different
foods and the number of servings to consume daily.
1 National Academy of Sciences. Institute of Medicine. Nutrition Labeling: Issues and Directions
for the 1990s. Committee on the Nutrition Components of Food Labeling. D.V. Porter and R. O.
Earl, editors. National Academy Press. 1990. 355 p.
2 U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services. Public Health Service. Surgeon General’s Report on
Nutrition and Health. 1988. HHS (PHS) Publication No. 88-50210. 727 p.
3 National Research Council. Commission on Life Sciences. Diet and Health: Implications for
Reducing Chronic Disease Risk. Committee on Diet and Health. National Academy Press. 1989.
4 U.S. Dept of Agriculture. Dept. of Health and Human Services. Nutrition and Your Health:
Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Home and Garden, Bulletin no. 232, 3rd Edition. 1990. 27 p.
In 1989, FDA and USDA announced their plan to overhaul all nutrition information
in food labeling.5 Their coordinated plan included convening a series of public meetings
to solicit ideas for labeling changes, commissioning a background report by the National
Academy of Sciences-Institute of Medicine (NAS-IOM), beginning a multi-phased process
of updating all relevant regulations to reflect current scientific knowledge, and developing
a new food label that was easier for consumers to use.
The commissioned NAS-IOM report addressed a variety of labeling issues including
all packaged and fresh foods, and foods sold or served in settings outside the home.6 Its
recommendations became part of the reform debate for FDA and USDA in revising their
regulations and Congress in passing legislation. For purposes of this CRS Report, only
the issues of fresh foods, which were defined in the NAS-IOM study as produce, raw
meats, poultry and fish, will be reviewed. The NAS-IOM report recommended that
mandatory requirements for packaged foods and processed meats, which were anticipated
as part of nutrition labeling reform, also be provided for fresh foods. The rationale for this
recommendation was that current dietary advice was directing consumers to increase their
intake of fruits, vegetables and grain products, while reducing their intake of foods high
in fat and saturated fats by selecting leaner meat and dairy products. However, none of
these foods is purchased in the type of traditional food packaging that lends itself easily
to affixing a nutrition label. Labeling, by definition, means any information provided on
or in close proximity to a product at the point of purchase, and can include both labels on
packages and other forms of information at the point of purchase, including brochures,
posters, shelf cards, and hang tags.
The NAS-IOM committee considered the heterogeneity, effects of storage,
preparation and cooking, adequacy of food composition data, existing voluntary point-of-
purchase information programs, current FDA produce guidelines, and enforcement issues
in considering its recommendations for fresh foods. Specifically for fresh meat and
poultry, the nutrient composition of animal-derived foods varies as a function of genetic
and nutritional factors, stage of maturity at slaughter, and animal husbandry methods.
Muscle-based foods are primarily eaten cooked, but may be frozen or stored in the home
for considerable periods of time prior to use. All forms of food storage and preparation,
whether commercial or in the home, result in the loss of nutrients. Changes in food
composition occur during cooking; the amount of fat, water, and soluble nutrients lost
from meat and poultry will vary with grade and cooking method. Both natural variability
and home preparation methods of meat and poultry pose obstacles to providing reasonably
accurate data for a mandatory nutrition labeling program for such foods.
At the time of the NAS-IOM study, existing USDA nutrient composition data
available for nutrition labeling were relatively complete for a variety of cuts and grades of
beef subject to representative cooking methods and fairly complete for poultry, pork, lamb,
veal and game products. The IOM study also reviewed various methods which had been
used to provide voluntary nutrition information on fresh foods, including signs posted in
5 U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services. Food and Drug Admin. Food Labeling; Advanced
Notice of Proposed Rulemaking. Federal Register, v. 54, August 8, 1989. p.32610-32615.
6 National Academy of Sciences. Institute of Medicine. Nutrition Labeling: Issues and Directions
for the 1990s. Committee on the Nutrition Components of Food Labeling. D.V. Porter and R. O.
Earl, editors. National Academy Press, 1990. 355 p.
produce departments, labeling affixed to meat products, and shelf cards based on 3-ounce
portions of meat products. USDA’s prior approval program provided enforcement
controls over label information, but compliance verification of actual nutrient content
would be necessary under a mandatory program. Given the variability of fresh products
compared to packaged foods (that are standardized in content and packaging), the IOM
committee recommended that retailers should be required to provide point-of-purchase
nutrition information for all fresh foods, with appropriate followup to evaluate consumer
reaction, use, and comprehension with modification as needed. It also recommended that
FDA and USDA should allow flexibility in the format and nutrition information required
for labeling of fresh foods.
Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990 (NLEA)
Passage of NLEA came nearly two decades after voluntary nutrition labeling had
been initiated. Dozens of bills that would have required mandatory labeling had been
introduced in that period. The most comprehensive bills for mandated nutrition labeling
for most packaged foods and meat products were introduced in the late 1970s by Senator
McGovern and Congressman Richmond. Most bills took a more limited approach to
mandatory labeling; i.e., sodium labeling. These labeling bills received little attention, and
none was enacted. In considering these bills, Congress faced the same dilemma as the
agencies. The science was slowly evolving, but there was still inadequate evidence on the
relationship of nutrients to chronic disease to require the nutrient content listing proposed
to be displayed on packages, and to justify placing this regulatory burden on the food
industry in order to provide consumers with additional information.
NLEA amended the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1938, which was originally
passed at a time when there was virtually no scientific knowledge of the diet and disease
relationships that are the focus of public health concern today. Enacted in 1990, NLEA
required mandatory nutrition labeling to appear on most packaged foods regulated by
FDA.7 In addition, it directed the agency to determine the most appropriate way to
provide nutrition information on fresh foods. A voluntary nutrition labeling program was
to be established for fresh foods, but the Act required the agency to monitor and review
regularly the degree to which stores actually provided this information for these foods.
If the number of stores did not meet a specific proportion, then the labeling program was
to become mandatory. Stores used a variety of methods to provide information to
consumers. Various commodity trade associations also prepared nutrition labeling
materials to promote their products.
USDA Nutrition Labeling
From the beginning of his tenure as Secretary of Agriculture in 1991, Edward
Madigan supported changes in meat and poultry nutrition labeling. Although no meat
labeling legislation comparable to NLEA was passed, Secretary Madigan pledged to
promote efforts by USDA to make meat labels as comparable to other food labels as its
statutes allowed. Those statutes were the Federal Meat Inspection Act of 1906, the
Wholesome Meat Act of 1967, and the Poultry Products Inspection Act of 1957. Because
7 See archived CRS Report 92-382. Food Labeling Reform: Current Status, by Donna V. Porter
(available from author).
the voluntary nutrition labels on meat products had been somewhat different in appearance
and content from the nutrition labels on other foods, it had been difficult for consumers
to compare products that were labeled by FDA and USDA. The most frequently cited
example was pizza, with meat pizza being labeled under USDA rules and cheese pizza
being labeled under FDA rules. As labeling reform proceeded, FDA took the lead by
proposing rules in response to various NLEA provisions. In most cases, USDA followed,
by proposing comparable rules that paralleled the FDA regulations.8 The one significant
difference that remained was the USDA requirement for prior approval of all meat and
poultry labels under its existing statutes.
On May 27, 2000, President Clinton announced that a proposal for the
comprehensive nutrition labeling of fresh meat and poultry products, including all ground
or chopped meat, was being developed.9 The proposed rules, published on January 18,
2001, would require retailers to provide nutrition information through product labels or
at the point of purchase by posting signs or making information readily available in
brochures or leaflets for major cuts of single ingredient, raw meat and poultry products,
such as chicken breasts, turkey and steaks.10 The required information would include fat,
calories, and cholesterol content, and be provided in the labeling format that has been in
place since the mid-1990s. Providing such information has been voluntary, but fewer than
60% of retailers last year provided this information. Therefore, the Department is
proposing to make mandatory the guidelines currently in place for the voluntary program.
The proposal also requires nutrition labeling on the packages of all ground or chopped
meat and poultry products, such as hamburger, ground turkey and ground chicken patties.
Small business exemptions would be allowed for ground and chopped products, but not
for major cuts of single-ingredient, raw products. Nutrition labeling would not be required
on the package for major cuts of meat, because USDA believes that consumers have
reasonable expectations about the nutrient content of these products, and the point of
purchase availability of nutrient information would fulfill the requirement. However, for
raw ground or chopped meat and poultry products, certain parameters, such as fat, can be
controlled precisely to obtain a desired product. In addition, the nutrient and fat content
of ground or chopped products varies so significantly that the Department believes
consumers could not assess the nutritional quality of these products without the nutrition
labeling information affixed to the product to make informed comparisons. The comment
period for the proposed rules closed April 18, 2001.
Meat Labeling Legislation
At the time of NLEA passage, there was discussion of legislation to require nutrition
labeling on meat and poultry products, but no bills were introduced. While there were a
number of meat labeling bills during the 106th Congress, only one addressed nutrition
information. No comparable bills have yet been introduced in the 107th Congress.
8 U.S. Dept. of Agriculture. Food Safety and Inspection Service. Nutrition Labeling of Meat and
Poultry Products; Final Rule. Federal Register. v. 58, no.3, January 6, 1993. p. 632-691.
9 Radio address by the President of the Nation, May 27, 2000.
10 U.S. Dept. of Agriculture. Food Safety and Inspection Service. Nutrition Labeling of Ground or
Chopped Meat and Poultry Products and Single-Ingredient Products; Proposed Rule. Federal
Register. v. 66, no.12. January 18, 2001. p.4969-4999.
The Fresh Meat and Poultry Consumer Awareness Act of 2000 (H.R. 4175) was
introduced on April 4, 2000, by Congresswoman Lowey and a dozen cosponsors, to
amend the meat and poultry laws to extend mandatory nutrition labeling information
requirements to single-ingredient raw meats and poultry products. The Secretary of
Agriculture would have 1 year from the date of enactment to issue final regulations to
require nutrition information labeling on products sold at retail to consumers. To the
extent possible, the regulations for these products would be identical to the current
mandatory labeling requirements applicable to processed meats and poultry, unless the
Secretary determined that a difference in the labeling information would better promote
consumer awareness. Failure by the Secretary to issue final regulations within the year
specified would result in the current mandatory labeling requirements on processed meats
and poultry to be used until the final regulations were issued. The bill was referred to the
House Committee on Agriculture, but no further action was taken.
The White House announcement about the mandatory nutrition labeling of fresh
meats and poultry indicated that the requirement would be comprehensive. The proposed
regulations address the labeling of both ground/chopped and single ingredient major cuts
of raw meat, but indicate that the labeling of each product would follow different
requirements. USDA has proposed mandatory labeling on ground and chopped fresh meat
packages, while single ingredient raw major cuts of meat would provide nutrition
information either on the package or at the point of purchase. This different approach for
major cuts of meat is based on the assumption that consumers have some knowledge of
the nutrient content of these products. While there are certain safe food handling issues
unique to ground meat, requiring only one type of meat product to provide nutrition
information on the package may limit the value of the new regulation to consumers. All
meats have similar nutrient content so health-conscious consumers wishing to limit certain
components in their diets (such as total fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol) would likely
want to be able to compare a variety of meat products. Furthermore, ground meat
packages already carry the percentage fat content information on the package in order to
make “lean” and “extra lean” claims under existing regulations. A number of raw major
cuts of meat and poultry have already been found to carry the nutrition information on the
labels of their packages so some grocery stores seem to have determined that providing
this information on the product is useful for their consumers.
The NAS-IOM report recommended that nutrition labeling be required on most
foods, including fresh meats and poultry. This view appears to be supported by the U.S.
Dietary Guidelines 2000, which devoted four pages to directing consumers to “choose a
diet that is low in saturated fat and cholesterol and moderate in total fat.” The section
discusses different types of fat, appropriate food choices to meet the guideline, the upper
limit on fat for the calories consumed, advice for children and a comparison for saturated
fat in some foods. USDA’s proposal seems to support this concern by providing either
point of purchase or labels on all raw major cuts of meat. The decision to require ground
or chopped meat products to carry the label on the package, but allow the option of point
of purchase or labels for major cuts of meat and poultry seems to assume that consumers
know more about the content of major cuts than is supported by research evidence.
However, the Department has requested comments on this option (on package or posted)
and whether consumers have reasonable knowledge of the nutrient content of the major
cuts of single ingredient raw meat and poultry products.