By Megan Webb, Ph.D., Contributing Editor

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, have you ever walked to the meat counter or isle and been mesmerized by consumers as they engage with beef cuts and identify a selection? Do you ever wonder what made a consumer select a cut or roast? There has been a rise in credence attributes such as “local,” dry-aged,” and “natural” marketing efforts, for example. These products do provide more choices to customers, but they also add a greater complexity of options that requires some skill to decipher. So, let’s begin with what is required on a meat label:

Five Requirements on a Meat Label

  1. Product name
  2. Official inspection legend including the establishment number
  3. Address line
  4. Net weight or quantity, unless net weight is measured at retail
  5. Ingredient statement, if there is more than one ingredient

The product name is used to accurately define the product in the package and use the U.S. Department of Agriculture-Food Safety Inspection Service (USDA-FSIS) definitions. The official inspection legend includes an establishment number that is unique to both federal and state processing facilities. The net weight or quantity may not be included if measured at retail. 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…” General items such as “spices” or “seasonings” are allowable to protect proprietary recipes. If allergens are included in the product they must be listed. The major eight include wheat, shellfish, eggs, fish, peanuts, milk, tree nuts and soy.

What Else May Be on a Label?

Other label features can include nutritional information. Raw products with only one ingredient do not need to include nutritional information, but those with multiple ingredients do. A handling statement can also be included and indicate, “Keep Frozen” or “Keep Refrigerated” if the product requires specific handling to maintain food safety. The safe handling instructions can also be found on raw or partially cooked products requiring cooking steps. Fully cooked or ready-to-eat products do not contain safe handling instructions. Now, after sifting through these items, what tends to be left on the label is marketing information! Although this additional information is optional, avoiding misbranding is important. The act of misbranding can result in rescinding the label, product retention, recall, inspection suspension and criminal prosecution.

Who Oversees and Approves Label 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 USDA-Agricultural Marketing Service (USDA-AMS) marketing opportunities are created in the form of grading (i.e. USDA Choice), certification (i.e. USDA Certified Tender), and verification (i.e. USDA Process Verified).

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 USDA:

Some labels such as dry aged, kosher, oven roasted, and 100 percent 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 special claims that require a label sketch to be developed and submitted to the LPDS office in Washington, D.C. You may be wondering about unique claims you’ve seen regarding how the animal is raised. Those are referred to as “animal-raising claims.”

Animal-Raising Claims Are
Special Claims Requiring Approval

Animal-raising claims such as “raised without antibiotics,” “raised without hormones,” living claims such as “free range” or “pasture raised” and diet claims such as “grass fed,” “grain fed,” or “vegetarian fed” require oversight by USDA-FSIS LPDS. 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. These animal-raising claims are often described further by a statement that initiates 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,

I hope you can appreciate all of the information that is provided to you the next time you are selecting your perfect steak at the retail case! Our beef labeling system provides a safe, proven system for beef merchandizing that directly ties to product value. Facts are powerful, and let’s use them to help convey why there is no substitute for beef!

E-mail comments to