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More than "meats" the eye.

More Than "Meats" The Eye

Okay, shoppers, grab your pencils. It's time for another round of "What's In A Name?" 1) What's a "country style chicken"? 2) What's the difference between "lasagna with meat sauce" and "lasagna with meat and sauce"? 3) Which has more meat: "pork and dressing" or "pork with dressing and gravy"?

Let's see how you did. 1) A "country style chicken" is a chicken with the wishbone left whole. 2) "Lasagna with meat sauce" has to be at least 6 percent meat; "lasagna with meat and sauce" can't be less than 12 percent. 3) "Pork and dressing" must be at least half meat; "pork with dressing and gravy" can get by with only 30 percent.

If you didn't do too well, don't worry: neither did we.

And having the packages in front of you wouldn't help, either; the answers aren't on the labels ... not even in the small print.

They are published, however, in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's 174-page Standards and Labeling Policy Book.

How convenient.

Only the USDA, which regulates meat and poultry products, has such elaborate definitions for so many finished foods. The Food and Drug Administration, which has authority over all other foods, has far fewer. "We have a standard for macaroni and a standard for cheese," explains Judith Riggins of the FDA's Office of Compliance, "but no standard for macaroni and cheese."

The USDA exerts control over what goes into foods by exerting control over the label. "If we deem it to be safe, you can make it," explains David Shenkenberg of the Division of Standards and Labeling. "The question is, what can you call it?"

Let's say your company invents a low-fat hot dog. Before you can market it, the folks at the USDA have to approve its label. If your product doesn't meet the standard for hot dogs, you can still sell it. You just can't call it a "hot dog."

WHY BOTHER?

Theoretically, the government sets standards to protect consumers (though one might wonder what good it does to guarantee that "chicken soup" is at least two percent chicken). But what's the point of making an elaborate set of rules if no one knows about them? * How can a consumer intelligently choose between a chicken spread and a chicken salad without knowing that "spreads" must contain 30 percent chicken, while "salads" only have to have 25 percent? * Who would suspect that "meatballs" could get by with just 65 percent meat? Or that "ground beef" (which must be 100 percent meat) can contain up to 3 percent meat from the animal's cheek before having to say so on the label? (Why 3 percent? Because the cheek makes up about 3 percent of most cattle.) * When the label says "meat," the product can include muscle from an animal's esophagus or diaphragm. * With poultry the question is: How much skin? If an ingredient list mentions any part of a bird, such as "chicken breast," it's telling you skin is included. Only when it says "breast meat" can you be certain the skin has been removed. * Baby foods are among the worst offenders, simply because it's impossible to guess what's in the homogenized mush. Parents might be shocked to find that "high meat dinners" only have to be 26 percent meat.

In 1976, CSPI petitioned the FDA to require that all baby food labels disclose the percentages of main ingredients. A short 12 years later the proposal is still pending, and the babies we first sought to protect are now about to enter junior high school.

Nor are baby foods an isolated case. How much real crab--and how much imitation surimi--is in that "seafood dinner"? How much fruit is in that yogurt, fruit roll-up, or cereal? All labels ought to break down a food's ingredients (especially expensive main ingredients) by percentage.

DOUBLE STANDARDS

Then there are the inconsistencies: Ordinary "chicken and rice" must contain at least 15 percent chicken, but "chicken and rice" designed for babies or "geriatric populations" has to have only a stingy 5 percent.

Similarly, boneless turkey or turkey roll can't contain more than 15 percent skin, but the skin limit for boneless chicken or chicken roll is 20 percent.

"There are some inconsistencies," aknowledges the USDA's Shenkenberg. "Most standards originated on a case-by-case basis over the years. As people came in and were told-how much meat or poultry to use, sometimes decisions were made from one sense of direction and sometimes from another."

Until the USDA gets around to requiring ingredients-by-percent on labels (don't hold your breath), here's a guide to take to the store. Just remember, you're not necessarily better off with more meat. (On the other hand, why pay meat prices for binders and extenders?)

PHOTO : One of these lasagnas probably has twice as much meat as the other. It's all in the name.
COPYRIGHT 1988 Center for Science in the Public Interest
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1988, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:meat content of prepared foods
Author:Liebman, Bonnie
Publication:Nutrition Action Healthletter
Date:Nov 1, 1988
Words:809
Previous Article:The laxative that lowers cholesterol.
Next Article:Carrots against cancer?
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