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Understanding a meat label

Approaching a retail case at your local grocery store can be mesmerizing! Some cases have built in background reflection mirrors, LED lighting and can be filled with many products and packaging styles.

Regardless of the scenery, meat can be labeled with attributes such as local, dry aged, and natural, for example. These products provide more choices to consumers but they also add a greater complexity of options that require skill to decipher. So, what is required on a meat label?

Required meat label information

  1. Product name: The product name must accurately define the product in the package and use the USDA-Food Safety Inspection Service (USDA-FSIS) approved definitions.

  2. Official inspection legend including the establishment number: The official inspection legend will include an establishment number that is unique to both federal and state processing facilities. 

  3. Address line

  4. Net weight or quantity: The net weight or quantity may not be included if measured at retail.

  5. Ingredient statement: The ingredient statement lists elements in the order included in the final product.  

    • If 2 percent of an ingredient is included, it can be listed as "contains less than 2 percent . . ."

    • Generic terms such as "Spices" or "Seasonings" are allowable to protect proprietary recipes.  

    • If allergens are included in the product, they must be listed. 

      • The major 8 are: wheat, shellfish, eggs, fish, peanuts, milk, tree nuts and soy.  

    • Nutritional information is included for raw products with multiple ingredients and cooked products.  

    • Safe handling instructions are required for raw or partially cooked products requiring cooking steps but fully cooked or ready-to-eat products can be excluded.

What else is on a label?

Marketing information. Although this additional information is optional, it is important to avoid misbranding. The act of misbranding (providing false or misleading information on a label) can result in rescinding the label, product retention, recall, inspection suspension and criminal prosecution.

Who oversees marketing information?

  • The USDA-FSIS regulates products containing 2 percent or more cooked meat and 3 percent or more raw meat.  

  • The Food and Drug Administration regulates meat "flavored" sauces and soups and products containing less than 2 percent meat.  

  • Through the USDA-Agricultural Marketing Service (USDA-AMS) marketing opportunities are created in the form of grading (USDA Choice), certification (USDA Certified Tender), and verification (USDA Process Verified).  

How is marketing approved on a label?

Documentation can be provided to USDA-FSIS labeling and program delivery staff (LPDS). The LPDS evaluates labels, publishes guidance and verifies claims.  Label guidance can be found online through the USDA.  

Labels such as dry aged, kosher, oven roasted, and "100% pure," for example, can be generically approved onsite by a USDA inspector.  

Other labels, such as "natural," breed claims, AMS verification programs and certified claims, are examples of special claims that require producers to develop and submit a label sketch to the LPDS office in Washington D.C.

Claims that require oversight and special approval by USDA-FSIS LPDS:

  • Animal raising claims: raised without antibiotics, raised without hormones, etc.

  • Living condition claims: free range, pasture raised, etc.

  • Animal diet claims: grass fed, grain fed, vegetarian fed, etc.  

The owner of the product must provide a definition, verify compliance and provide transparency of the information through a definition listed or a website link provided on the label. 

Animal raising claims are often described further by a statement with an asterisk on the label. This information must be provided in the label sketch submission for these specialty claims.  For frequently used animal raising claim and certified claim definitions, visit USDA-AMS auditing and accreditation.

Take some time to appreciate all of the information provided to you the next time you're selecting your steak at the retail case!

For more information, visit the 2019 Beef Improvement Federation Research Symposium, "From Label to Table: Understanding Consumer Preferences for Beef."

Megan Webb is an Extension beef specialist and assistant professor in the animal science department who specializes in beef production systems.

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