I-Team: Are ground beef fat content labels accurate?

CHICOPEE, Mass. (WWLP) – The summer barbecue season begins this weekend.  The 22News I-Team is working for you checking to see how accurate those fat content labels on ground beef really are.

You’ve likely noticed the fat percentage on the label of ground beef packages.  The leaner or less fat in the ground beef, the more expensive it is.  The 22News I-Team discovered if you are getting what you pay for. fattesting3

When you buy ground beef, there’s a reasonable expectation the amount of fat listed on the label is accurate. The 22News I-Team put this to the test. We went to four grocery stores on Memorial Drive in Chicopee. We bought store brand ground beef at Stop & Shop, Big Y, Price Rite and Walmart’s Great For You ground beef.

We put the ground beef in a cooler and took them to a USDA approved lab in Connecticut to test their fat content.  After a few weeks our results were in.

At Big Y we bought ground beef labeled as 85% lean, 15% fat.  It was actually 76.6% lean and 23.4% fat.

At Price Rite we also bought 85% lean and 15 % fat, this sample was actually better than labeled, just 13% fat.

Same thing at Stop N’ Shop, their 80% lean and 20% fat ground beef was actually a little leaner, 19% fat.

At Walmart the ground beef we sampled was labeled as 93% lean and 7% fat.  The tests show this package had nearly 20% fat, more than twice what was shown on the label. It was 80.9% lean and 19.1% fat.

Their 93% lean beef is $1.30 more per pound than their labeled 80% lean ground beef.

Alan Johnson is the Lab Director at Northeast Laboratories.

(Do any of those raise a red flag to you?)

“We would look at it, we had the one here the “Great For You” Walmart, which is supposed to be fairly lean 7% fat and it came back at 19%. The Big Y was supposed to be 15% and came back at 23%.  Those we would call, we would make a phone call on that,” said Johnson.

Since many of us aren’t sending our ground beef into a lab, there’s a way you can gauge how fatty it is.  When you cook ground beef with a higher fat content on a grill you’ll likely see a lot of flames coming up from the beef and your burgers will shrink. A leaner beef, you see the opposite. You should see fewer or no flames at all and there shouldn’t be much shrinkage.

Arnold’s Meats Owner Larry Katz explained how they determine the fat content of their ground beef. We did not test their ground beef for fat content.

“We do about 20, 200 pound batches a day.  We normally test 5 out of the 20 at different times of the day,” said Katz.

Katz told the I-Team they have a federal inspector on site six days a week and they label most of their beef 80% lean and 20% fat, even if there samples have lower fat content.

Big Y sent the I-Team this statement: “At Big Y, we pride ourselves on having the highest quality ground beef for our customers at all times.  We are shocked at these results and are working with our beef supplier to determine why the (I) Team’s findings were not consistent with our company policy and product specifications.  Our beef is inspected at the plant and in addition, we have our own inspectors in the field to check product from each of our stores to be sure that our fat content is well below what is listed on the label.  We are now working with our supplier to review these results to be sure that our product standards remain true to what is stated on our labels.”

Walmart sent us this statement:  “We know our customers trust us to provide safe and affordable products that exceed their expectations. To do that, we expect and require our beef suppliers to meet all regulatory standards.  All beef products sold in Walmart stores are processed in USDA-inspected facilities and labeled in accordance to state and federal regulations.  Simply put, if the beef doesn’t measure up, it won’t be sold at Walmart.  We recognize different testing methodology can and will produce different results. Even with the most stringent testing programs, there is always the possibility for a sample to be outside the normal range of the batch.”

Price Rite responded to us on Thursday through a statement: “At Price Rite, we work with our suppliers to ensure our products are held to the highest standards of quality and safety. The findings in this study come as no surprise to us but serve to reflect our unwavering commitment to providing our customers with great food at great prices.”

Stop & Shop sent us this statement:  “Stop & Shop is committed to providing safe, fresh and high-quality food to our customers that is labeled in accordance with all applicable requirements.  Stop & Shop ground beef is tested to ensure that the lean meat content indicated on the label is accurate.”

Below are some answers from the USDA Food and Safety Inspection Service:

How will retailers know the lean/fat content of ground products, and how will they determine the other nutrients in the nutrition facts panel?

Retailers need to know that ground or chopped beef labeled as ground beef or hamburger does not contain more than 30% fat.

Will random documentation be required to “verify” the processors’ claims of 80% lean/20% fat or 90% lean/10% fat, etc.?

No, there is no regulatory requirement that defines how the establishment needs to support the label, and there is no requirement that it test each lot. If they have a consistent process, using the same source materials, then the establishment could develop and implement a written program to periodically verify compliance with the label standard by ensuring that suppliers consistently provide the source materials necessary to produce the labeled product. Although, the nutrition labeling regulations do not specify how an establishment determines the nutrient content of products, §317.309(h) specifies how FSIS will sample/analyze product for compliance.

If a producer is not sure of the lean and fat percentage of a ground or chopped product, could the producer label it with a worse lean and fat percentage? For example, could a producer label a product that is actually 80% lean and 20% fat, with a 70%lean/30% fat label?

FSIS would not take action against producers estimating that their products are higher in fat than they actually are.

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