Making Some Sense Out of Ground Beef Labeling

Ground Beef

Fresh Ground Beef

Davey Griffin, Professor and Extension Meat Specialist
Texas A&M Agrilife Extension Service

When consumers go to the grocery store, they are confronted with a variety of items from which to select. One of the most commonly purchased items from the beef section is ground beef. Because of its functionality in a multitude of different entree items, ground beef is the largest single beef item sold (by volume) in most food stores. Although most consumers enjoy having a variety of items to choose from, ground beef options are sometimes confusing. Similar appearing products may be labeled as ground beef, hamburger, ground round, sirloin, chuck and may include claims such as natural, organic, lean, extra lean or others. Most ground beef today also identifies the lean-to-fat ratio by stating the percentage lean and percentage fat found in the package. The challenge for consumers is knowing which product is the right one for the buyer’s intended use.

The definition of ground beef is chopped fresh and/or frozen beef from primal cuts and trimmings. Trimmings are defined as the small pieces containing both lean and fat that come from a beef carcass as the carcass is cut or “fabricated” into beef primals, subprimals or individual cuts.  The maximum fat content in any ground beef is 30% (70% lean) by law. No water, phosphates, binders, or other meat sources may be added and still be labeled as ground beef. If a ground beef label has an added label identifier such as ground round, sirloin or chuck, the lean and fat used in the product can come from only the primal included in the name. So ground round can only contain lean and fat from the round, sirloin from the sirloin, etc. There is no added percentage lean/fat requirement for a ground beef product from a specific primal, so although most products seen in stores would display ground chuck as either 80 or 85% lean and ground round or sirloin to be even leaner, the legal requirement is that those products are at a minimum 70% lean. It is up to the consumer to read the label to be sure they are purchasing the product that best fits their expectations and expected usage. If a package is labeled simply as hamburger, it has to meet all of the already mentioned requirements with the exception that it may contain 100% fat trimmings (no lean) from other than the primal sources.

According to “askusda.gov“, the term “lean” may be used to describe an individual food as packaged when it contains less than 10 grams of fat, 4.5 grams or less of saturated fat, and less than 95 milligrams of cholesterol per reference amount and per 100 grams. For a main dish or meal to qualify as “lean,” it must meet these specified levels for fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol per 100 grams and per labeled serving.  The term “extra lean” may be used to describe products that contain less than 5 grams of total fat, less than 2 grams of saturated fat, and less than 95 milligrams of cholesterol per reference amount and per 100 grams. For main dish or meal products, these levels apply per 100 grams and per labeled serving size.

The revision in the regulation was proposed to eliminate confusion by consumers. If a “%lean/%fat” descriptor was not used, it was concluded that most ground beef would revert to being sold as ground round, sirloin, or chuck, or under an “in-store” name. Although on the surface this doesn’t seem to pose a significant problem, the composition of these products without a descriptor of some type may vary greatly. Many shoppers would rank ground round being the leanest grind a store would stock, followed by ground sirloin and then ground chuck. However, as long as ground round has at a minimum of 70% lean and maximum 30% fat and comes from the round, then it is correctly labeled. It could also have 90% lean and 10% fat and still be labeled as ground round. This clearly was not the intention of the 1993 nutritional labeling regulations or the type of information that most consumers request. In consumer studies conducted in 1994, shoppers were not able to accurately identify the lean content of ground beef identified only by names such as ground round. However, when the “%lean” and/or “%lean/%fat” identifiers were used, a majority of shoppers could accurately identify the lean content of ground beef and indicated that a label using a descriptor was preferred when they made ground beef purchase decisions.

Some of the recommendations listed will help in matching the appropriate ground beef product with the intended use by the shopper:

  1. Use the “%lean” or “%lean/%fat” indicator on the label to get the desired lean content regardless of any claim as to where on the beef carcass the ground beef was sourced.
  2.  “Look for the red.” If shopping for beef ground in a local store, a package of ground beef will be redder in color the higher the lean content, so if no other indicator is available, the redder the color, the leaner the ground beef.
  3. If sound beef is packaged in “chubs”, recognize that those were packaged under USDA/FSIS inspection and although the lean color cannot be observed, there is assurance that the Percentage lean/fat on the package is documented at the plant under inspection.

Today, consumers may have a myriad of choices of ground beef packages presented for their purchase at local retail stores.  Historically, ground beef was derived as a by-product of fabricating a beef carcass into beef cuts.  The resulting “trimmings” were ground and sold in a foam tray with a PVC overwrap that allowed oxygen to penetrate and help maintain a bright red color for 2-3 days.  As less beef carcasses were shipped to stores, there were less trimmings generated at the store level, so supplemental coarse ground beef was shipped to the stores in bulk packaging to be ground and traditionally packaged and displayed for sale.  Additionally, packers and further processors began grinding and packaging “chub-packaged” ground beef to stores.  Chub-packaged ground beef is ground and packaged in USDA plants under FSIS inspection and arrives at the store in its’ packaging ready to be displayed for sale.  Because of less exposure to oxygen and also less handling, chub-packaged ground beef typically has a longer shelf-life than store processed ground beef and has a “Use-By” date on the package to indicate the manufacturer’s recommendation for use to maintain quality expectations.  Consumers may also find case ready ground beef that will typically be packaged in a more rigid package with a flat clear film on the top side.  Case ready ground beef was packaged at a packing or further processing facility, then the atmosphere inside the package was modified by replacing the air with a combination of oxygen and potentially carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and nitrogen (inert), then sealed.  The gas mixture incise the package allows the meat to stay bright red longer and combats the growth of microorganisms on the meat that could cause spoilage or be a food safety risk.  Additionally, ground beef “bricks” are being displayed for sale.  Ground beef bricks are another method of producing ground beef at the packer or further processor level.  A measured amount of ground beef is placed in a formed square of packaging film, a vacuum is applied and it is sealed.  The film has a high oxygen barrier, so the meat is reddish-purple in color and again has a longer shelf life than oxygenated red meat that has traditionally been displayed in the retail case.

A number of consumers make decisions concerning ground beef purchases solely on leanness. Others base their decisions based on leanness and price, balanced by the ultimate intended use. Regardless of your decision criteria, ground beef is an economical source of available nutrients. The total calories, protein, and fat, along with available iron and zinc levels is shown below for a 3 oz. broiled serving cooked well done.


73% Lean

80% Lean

85% Lean
Calories

248.00

235.00

213.00
Protein (g)

22.84

24.38

24.85
Total Fat (g)

16.83

14.52

11.81
Iron (mg)

2.27

2.18

2.37
Zinc (mg)

4.99

5.35

5.51

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