Label on a piece of meatThe USDA is rocking its comfortable relationship with some of its biggest constituents -- the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, for one -- with its announcement that nutritional labeling will be required beginning Jan. 1, 2012.

The new labels will detail the number of calories and the grams of total fat and saturated fat a product contains. Processed and prepared foods have long been required by the Food and Drug Administration to carry labels detailing the nutritional content, especially protein, fat and carbohydrates -- more recent requirements govern allergens, trans fatty acids, and soon, gluten content. But raw produce, fish, meat and poultry, have not fallen under the same requirements. In fact, the labeling of meat and poultry (but not fish) is governed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.So, while many rules regarding meat labeling do exist, they're often confusing and unhelpful for all but the most educated consumer -- and even she might never know if, for instance, the chicken has been injected with salt water to make it seem plumper, or what is the fat content of a steak. "Natural" is famously a nonsense word; the USDA requirements state "a product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed (a process which does not fundamentally alter the raw product) may be labeled natural. " "Free-range" chicken need not have ever actually seen the sky, if only the birds "have access to the outside."

Given the USDA's long history of serving up regulations that its constituent groups appreciate, this one isn't as well-loved. The NCBA complains in a statement that its members "wish USDA would have granted our request for an 18- to 24-month implementation period," pointing to the "significant new costs" associated with the rule.

Though the complaints are many, the requirements seem tame. The rules apply to "40 of the most popular cuts of meat and poultry products," including all ground or chopped meat and poultry -- hamburger and ground turkey, for instance -- and raw, single-ingredient cuts of meat such as whole and boneless chicken and turkey parts, steaks, beef roasts and ribs.

In addition to fat grams and calories, the labels of ground or chopped meat must also contain a fat percentage. Today, only the "lean percentage" must be listed; you've seen this in the grocery store meat market as "85% lean ground beef." As anyone who remembers third grade math knows, this translates to 15% fat; a number that may, however, escape the conscious mind of most shoppers. We're trained to see the awesomeness of 85% or 90% lean and not the fact that 15% or even 10% fat is quite a lot (great for a good beef chili though).

As rules go, it's rather mild, and still doesn't address some key complaints of many sustainable agriculture activists; for instance, what sort of feed the animals ate (and whether GMOs were involved), how long were their lives and how humane was their slaughter. There's no rule that will detail "natural" additives like that chicken-plumping saline solution. But most importantly, it will illuminate fat and saturated fat content in a way that everyone can understand.

A wholesale revolution in meat and poultry processing, it's not. But it's a nice step in the right direction, and the timing shows that Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack will stand up to the cattlemen's and poultry interests, at least a little, and that's heartening.

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