The meat section of your grocery store will be undergoing a transformation. As of March 1st, 2012, the majority of meat sold in the butcher case is required to bear nutrition labels. The labels will be just like the ones on other packaged foods, requiring specifics like calories, saturated fat, and protein to be disclosed (see image above).
Why the sudden interest in labeling meat products? Up until now, manufacturers had the option to voluntarily provide this information. However, recent surveys by the Food Safety and Inspection Service show limited participation in the program. Rising rates of chronic disease have prompted a closer look at how to empower consumers to make educated food choices, and making the voluntary meat label mandatory is seen as a way to give people essential nutrition information they can easily act upon. Having the details on these food products is likely to cause serious sticker shock for label readers. One serving of 95% lean ground beef (4 ounces, which is about the size of a deck of cards) is 154 calories, 2.5g of saturated fat, and 24.2g of protein. For more of the basics on what will and won’t be labeled, check out this article from WebMD. While there are some positives to the new disclosure coming to the meat department, this new ruling does bring us back to the question of the utility of labels.
At the end of the day, how many labels do we really need tell us that something is healthy or unhealthy? Maybe in this era of everything right here-right now, we have too many distractions to be able to focus on the basics. Under these circumstances a label is useful: it tells you what you need to make a good decision, and ideally what is most important. But when is a label a crutch, and when is it providing us with information that’s sorely needed? More importantly, what would it mean if we needed labels to give us information that we should just know? Should there be a line of acceptability when it comes to labels, or will we soon see a day when fresh produce carries stickers with nutrition facts to help us conclude they are healthy?