Ground meat labels list fat content and leanness, but are they accurate?

Fat content on labels can vary by as much as 20%

CLEVELAND - On most packages of ground beef, there is a label that lists the fat content. It drives consumer decisions, but are you really getting what you paid for? We found it depends on where you shop.

"It's a labor of love," said Vincent Bertonaschi of Vince's Meats at the West Side Market.

For more than 50 years, Bertonaschi has been working at the West Side Market.

"I take pride in what I do. I don't do this because it's a job. I do this because it's my business and my name is up on top," said Bertonaschi.

Long before customers show up at Vince's Meats, the cutting and grinding begins.

"I'm going to add a little extra meat to this. I like to keep my sirloin very lean," Bertonaschi explained.

At the West Side Market, businesses don't have to label the leanness of the ground beef. It's not required by law because of their size. If you ask, the vendors will give you an estimate.

Big grocers added nutrition labels in 2012.

"We will usually buy the 90/10 sometimes 85/15," shopper Glenn Anderson said.

These cuts have less fat and fewer calories. You'll pay for that healthier cut, too.

"I think it's well worth the price," Anderson said.

But, are you really getting what you paid for?

We bought ground beef from the West Side Market, Heinen's, Giant Eagle, Marc's, Walmart and Dave's. We sent it to a lab for testing. Only one sample came back nearly perfect. That's the 80/20 meat from Marc's.

"I want to know what I'm buying and if the label says one thing I expect it to be that," Anderson said.

Testing the labels
However, USDA guidelines allow for variation. The average must be within 20 percent of the label. Stores told us several samples are taken from a 2,000 pound lot of meat, and then averaged.

"As a consumer we should have packages that we can rely on and make informed decisions about," said shopper Ed Jacak.

Our testing found the fat content was overstated on some labels and understated on others. At Dave's, the samples we tested gave you more for your money. The 73/27 hamburger tested 6-percent leaner. The 93/7 ground sirloin tested 2-percent better.

At Walmart and Heinen's, one sample was leaner than the label and the other fattier. The results were split at the West Side Market, too.

"I generally get it pretty good, but you got me on that one," Bertonaschi said.

Giant Eagle's samples all tested fattier, but within USDA guidelines.

Giant Eagle spokesman Daniel Donovan said, "After originally learning of the WEWS content analysis, we conducted our own internal testing based on the USDA methodology and found that the average of all samples examined fell within government guidelines. For instance, while some of the tested ground beef samples were similar to the WEWS findings that showed modest variances from a 15 percent or 20 percent fat content, all were still within government standards."

Meat distributor weighs in on label variation
Meat and food distributor J. Kolt thinks the variation is not that big a deal.

"The equipment it would take for the retail store to test at the store level it's probably a $200,000 piece of equipment," explained J. Kolt of Chef-Ko Wholesale Distributors .

Kolt has been in the food industry since he was a kid. He now owns his 101-year-old family business. Kolt said meat has been processed the same way for years. It's common to add trimmings from other cuts of meat to the ground beef either at the store level or the distributor.

"You want me to throw those trimmings away and raise your price on everything including your ground beef or buy the stuff we've bought for the last umpteen years?" Kolt asked.

It's a question that may get asked more in the coming year as the USDA begins spot checking the accuracy of the labels.

The program is expected to start this year, but the feds are not releasing any details. Until that happens, consumers are left wondering what they're really buying.

"It boils back down to a quality butcher," Jacak said.

On the meat from Marc's and Walmart, we noticed a USDA stamp. The Ohio Department of Agriculture said that means the meat was not ground at the store level. It came right from a USDA inspected facility.

If you don't see this label and you purchased your meat from a grocer, your meat probably still came from a USDA facility. It just means the meat department at the store did something to your meat. It's common practice to grind one last time at the store level and re-package the beef

Marc's statement:
Marc's offers an excellent selection of high-quality meats and we stand behind that quality. Marc's purchases its meat from the top four meat processing facilities in the industry. These USDA inspected facilities test, verify and package ground beef according to the percentage of lean

content. These facilities are used to supply beef to grocery chains around the region, including Marc's.

If USDA testing shows that our meat suppliers are outside of the federally mandated guidelines, Marc's will continue to work with our suppliers to ensure they are in compliance.

Marc's appreciates WEWS's commitment to consumer advocacy and we share your desire that all consumers in Northeast Ohio have accurate information about the foods they purchase. As Marc's is open, honest and transparent in all we do, we would be happy to provide additional information regarding our meat department or our suppliers and their specific testing procedures.


Giant Eagle response from Dan Donovan:
"Giant Eagle is committed to providing the highest quality beef from the nation's most reputable suppliers.  Our ground beef suppliers extensively analyze thousands of pounds of product daily, and all beef provided to us must meet or exceed USDA food quality guidelines by testing in accordance with government standards that use the average of multiple samples in order to ensure accurate measurements.
 
After originally learning of the WEWS content analysis, we conducted our own internal testing based on the USDA methodology and found that the average of all samples examined fell within government guidelines.  For instance, while some of the tested ground beef samples were similar to the WEWS findings that showed modest variances from a 15% or 20% fat content, all were still within government standards."

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