Requirements

The objective of this section is to provide an overview of the basic requirements and rules related to meat labeling in an easy-to-follow chronological format. This section places special emphasis on the retail supermarket industry and scale labels for random-weight meat products.

Compliance with meat labeling is wide-ranging and this section is not intended to be an official interpretation and cannot substitute for the careful review of all of the requirements and rules for meat labeling.

This section has excerpts and references information from the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) Web site and from "A Guide to Federal Food Labeling Requirements for Meat and Poultry Products".1

Label Definition

A "label" is a display of any printing, graphics stickers, seals, or other written, printed or graphic matter upon the immediate container. This includes labels appearing on the food package before they are applied to the product or are applied to point-of-purchase materials, including promotional brochures and shelf-talkers. (Brochures included with meat products are considered labeling.)

Mandatory Label Requirements

There are up to eight specific required features for each label:

  1. Product name
  2. Name and place of business
  3. Inspection legend and establishment number
  4. Net quantity of contents
  5. Ingredients statement
  6. Handling statement
  7. Safe handling instructions
  8. Nutrition facts

The placement and prominence of information of the mandatory requirements are specified by regulation. Generally, any required label information must be prominent, conspicuous (as compared to other words, statements and designs on the label), and in such terms as "to render it likely to be read and understood by the ordinary individual under customary conditions of purchase and use." To ensure that this threshold requirement is met, the regulations specify where and in what fashion certain required information must appear.

Product name

Labels for meat products must be identified by a product name. Click here to review the Names section.

Name and place of business

Labels for meat products must include the name or trade name and place of business of the manufacturer, packer or distributor for whom the product is prepared. The manufacturer or packer name may appear on the label without qualification. The name of the distributor, however, must be preceded by a phrase such as "Prepared for __" or "Distributed by __." If the business is listed in a telephone or city directory, the information listed for the place of business must include the city, state and postal code. Otherwise, it must also include the street address.

Inspection legend and establishment number

Regulations require a prominently displayed inspection legend and establishment or plant number on all federally inspected meat containers unless there is a specific exception (e.g., on a metal clip.) An official inspection legend is any symbol prescribed by regulations showing that a carcass or parts of carcasses were inspected and passed by FSIS in an official establishment in accordance with all federal regulations. An official establishment number is assigned to each establishment granted inspection service. The establishment number is used to identify all containers of inspected products prepared in the establishment. A product will be deemed "misbranded" if it fails to bear these features on its containers.

The regulations prescribe requirements for the relative dimensions and placement of the inspection legend; and the inspection legend must be of a sufficient size and of such color as to be conspicuously displayed and readily legible.

Net quantity of contents

USDA statutes and regulations establish specific labeling requirements governing statements of the net quantity of the food package offered for sale to the consumer at retail. This information facilitates value comparisons among similar products by consumers. All labels on food sold at retail must bear an accurate statement of the quantity of the package content in terms of weight, measure or numerical count. The statement must be in terms of the package contents – solid, liquid, semi-solid, or viscous. Reasonable quantity variations from the stated weight, caused by loss or gain of moisture during the course of good distribution practices or by unavoidable deviation in good manufacturing practices, are recognized and do not render a product to be misbranded. Reasonable variations are permitted because of the nature of certain foods and the impossibility of developing completely accurate means of packaging. Such variation may not be unreasonably large.

Rules require an "Expression of Net Quantity Statement". The statement of quantity should be expressed in terms of avoirdupois weight or liquid measure. The use of metric measurement as it relates to the net weight statement is voluntary because the FPLA exempts meat and poultry products from metric declaration. Where there is no general consumer usage to the contrary, the net quantity of contents statement for products sold in the U.S. should be expressed in terms of liquid measure if the product is liquid, or in terms of weight if the product is solid, semisolid, viscous, or a mixture of solid and liquid. The regulations require the terms "net weight" or "net wt." to appear with the net quantity of contents when expressed in terms of weight and "net contents" or "content" when expressed in terms of fluid measure.

The regulations specify the placement and prominence of the information. There are exceptions for:

Ingredients statement

The ingredients statement provides the consumer with detailed information regarding the ingredients of a meat product. An ingredients statement is required when a product is fabricated from two or more ingredients. All ingredients must be declared by their common or usual names on the label in descending order of predominance by weight. Order of predominance is determined based on the weight of ingredients as added to the formulation.

Ingredients of two percent or less may be listed in other than descending order at the end of the ingredients statement, preceded by a phrase such as "less than 1.5 percent of 2%" of threshold level.

When two meat ingredients comprise at least 70% of the meat and meat byproduct ingredients of a formula, and when neither ingredient is less than 30% by weight of the total meat and meat byproducts used, these meat ingredients may be interchanged in the formula without a change to the ingredients statement. In such cases, the word "and" must be used in lieu of a comma between the two ingredients.

An ingredients statement is not required when the product name provides a complete identification of all ingredients in the food (e.g., "Flank Steak, Beef, Boneless, With Black Pepper").

An ingredient that conforms to a standard of identity (see the Names section) is identified by the name specified by the applicable standard. When FDA standardized foods are used as ingredients in the preparation of meat products, the common or usual names of all ingredients in the standardized food must be listed, in parentheses, following the name of the standardized food as a "component listing". The Code of Federal Regulations and the Food Standards contain definitions for various food ingredients. In the absence of a specific FSIS requirement, the appropriate common or usual name as set forth by FDA is appropriate.

There are two methods by which ingredients and sub-ingredients may be declared within the ingredients statement:

FSIS allows the use of both component labeling and composite labeling within a singular ingredients statement.

Certain naming conventions, including the grouping of ingredients identified by a single term, are specified by FDA regulation and followed by FSIS. The ingredient name usually must be specific as opposed to generic. Synonymous terms are interchangeable. Examples of interchangeable terms are frank, hot dog and wieners; or corn syrup and corn syrup solids.

There are specific rules related to flavors, color additives, chemical preservatives, incidental additives, and ingredients of public health concerns that must be followed.

Handling statement

Packaged products that require special handling to maintain their wholesome condition must prominently display the applicable handling statement "Keep Refrigerated," "Keep Frozen," or "Perishable—Keep Refrigerated or Frozen." The FSIS Administrator may also approve additional phrases of similar importance. The statement "Keep Frozen" must appear on shipping containers for products that are distributed frozen and thawed prior to or during display for sale. Consumer-sized containers holding such products must bear the statement "Previously Handled Frozen for Your Protection, Refreeze or Keep Refrigerated."

Safe handling instructions

Safe handling instructions are required for the meat components of a product for any of the following:

Safe handling instructions may appear on products that are not ready-to-eat (RTE) but include a fully cooked meat portion. Safe handling instructions should not be used on RTE products.

Under the heading "Safe Handling Instructions," the safe handling information must appear on the label as follows. This product was prepared from inspected and passed meat and/or poultry. Some food products may contain bacteria that could cause illness if the product is mishandled or cooked improperly. For your protection, follow these safe handling instructions. This statement is, in turn, accompanied by the following additional required statements.

These instructions must appear in lettering no less than 1/16 of an inch in height and be placed on the label "prominently with such conspicuousness as to render it likely to be read and understood under customary conditions of purchase and use." The heading must be set in type size larger than the rationale statement and instructions. All safe handling information must be set off by a border and appear in one color printed on contrasting background of a single color.

FSIS permits changes to the first statement and icon if specific handling information on the product conflicts with the safe handling instructions. For example, if the label of a frozen product states, "Do not thaw product, cook from frozen," or "Do not thaw," the first part of the safe handling statement may be changed to "Keep Frozen." If a product is shelf stable and states, "No refrigeration necessary," or "Refrigerate after opening," the icon of the refrigerator and the entire statement about refrigeration can be eliminated.

Nutrition Labeling

Nutrition labeling is required for all meat products intended for human consumption and offered for sale with the following exceptions:

The regulations either exempt certain foods from the mandatory nutrition labeling requirements or subject other foods to special labeling requirements. Generally, these exemptions only apply when a product's label and advertising make no nutrition claims and contain no nutrition information. An exemption is negated if a nutrition claim or any other nutrition information is provided on the label or in labeling or advertising in any context and in any form and triggers the mandatory nutrition labeling requirements.

Nutrition labeling for processed meats and meat products that require special nutrition information is extensive, complex and beyond the objectives of this section. FSIS provides extensive nutrition labeling guidance materials on their Web site. Click here to access FSIS nutrition information.

On January 1, 2012, the final rule was implemented for Nutrition Labeling of Single-Ingredient and Ground or Chopped Meat Products. The final rule requires nutrition labeling of the major cuts of single-ingredient, raw meat products unless an exemption applies. Nutrition information for these products is required either on the label or at the point-of-purchase (e.g., by sign or brochure).

The final rule requires nutrition labels on all ground or chopped meat products (beef and pork), with or without added seasonings, unless an exemption applies. The producer of the final consumer-packaged product is required to provide the nutrition information; this may be a federal establishment supplier or a retail store. Ratios like 85/15—used historically in the meat supply chain—are prohibited for nutrition labels of ground or chopped meat products without the words "percent lean" and "percent fat". Use of reduced fat terms have specific requirements for the grams of fat allowed: lean – less than ten grams; extra lean – less than five grams; and low fat – less than three grams.

The final rule does not require nutrition information for single-ingredient, raw meat products that are not major cuts and that are not ground or chopped; however, if nutrition information is provided for these products, it must be provided in accordance with the nutrition information labeling requirements for the major cuts.

Since the 2012 final rule, the Uniform Retail Meat Identity Standards system (URMIS) updated the names for the major cuts. Below are cross-reference tables with the updated names.

Pork
2012 Major Cuts Update URMIS Names
Loin chop T-Bone Chops
Loin country style ribs Country-Style Ribs
Loin top loin chop boneless New York Chops
Loin rib chop Ribeye Chops
Spareribs Spareribs
Loin tenderloin Tenderloin
Shoulder blade steak Blade Steak
Loin top roast boneless New York Roast
Loin sirloin roast Sirloin Roast
Beef
2012 Major Cuts Update URMIS Names
Chuck blade roast Blade Chuck Roast
Loin top loin steak Strip Steak
Rib roast large end Ribeye Roast
Round eye round steak Eye of Round Steak
Round top round steak Top Round Steak
Round tip roast Sirloin Tip Roast
Loin sirloin steak Sirloin Steak
Round bottom round steak Bottom Round Steak
Brisket (whole, flat half, or point half) Brisket Point Half
Rib steak small end Ribeye Steak
Loin tenderloin steak Tenderloin Steak
Chuck arm pot roast Arm Chuck Roast

Principle Display Panel (PDP)

The principal display panel, or "PDP," is the part of the label most likely to be displayed, presented, shown, or examined under customary conditions of display for sale to the consumer. When a label bears alternate PDPs, information required to appear on the PDP shall be duplicated on each PDP. The PDP must be large enough to accommodate mandatory labeling information required by statute or regulation. The PDP must include:

  1. Product name (all products)
  2. Net quantity of contents (all products)
  3. Inspection legend and establishment number (all supplier produced products)
  4. Handling statement (products requiring special handling to maintain wholesomeness)

Information Panel (IP)

The information panel typically is that part of the label immediately contiguous and to the right of the PDP. The information panel also may be the back panel or, for some boxes, any panel contiguous to the PDP. All information required to appear on the label of a package must appear either on the PDP or the information panel unless otherwise specified by regulation. Label information that may be placed on the information panel includes:

  1. Name and place of business of the manufacturer or distributor (all products)
  2. Ingredients statement (products with multiple ingredients)
  3. Nutrition labeling (products not exempted by 9 CFR § 317.400)
  4. Safe handling instructions (raw or products containing not-ready-to-eat components) may be placed anywhere on the label

As with the PDP, information appearing on the information panel must be prominent and conspicuous. Certain exemptions are permitted by regulation where the label is below a certain size due to the overall size of the food product's package. An establishment may not deviate from regulatory requirements in an effort to accommodate optional information (e.g., product name not prominent to allow for large "new and improved" claim).

Prior Approval of Labels

The Federal Meat Inspection Act (FMIA) requires food manufacturers to obtain prior approval for labels of meat products before products may be marketed. Prior approval is granted by a "Sketch" or "Generic" method.

The Sketch approval method must be approved by FSIS. The Sketch method is the concept of a label while the "Final" label is the label that is applied to the product before distribution in commerce. Sketch labels must be submitted to the Labeling and Program Delivery Staff (LPDS) of FSIS. The guidelines are:

Labels that are more likely to present significant policy issues or have health or economic significance require sketch approval. Categories included are:

Generic approval method is approved by being in compliance with the applicable regulations without submitting such labeling to FSIS for sketch approval. Only labels which do not require sketch approval as noted above may be generically approved. The Generic method requires that all of the mandatory labeling features are in conformance with FSIS regulations and, by being in compliance with applicable regulations, the label is approved.

Retail Labeling

Meat products sold in retail stores must conform to all applicable FSIS labeling regulations, including mandatory label requirements, the placement and prominence of information on the label panel, and specific meat product labeling rules.

Basically, labels applied to products in retail stores do not require pre-approval. FSIS does not pre-approve labels applied at retail unless the label is shipped with the product from a federally inspected establishment.

FSIS does not require that point-of-purchase material receive prior approval unless it is shipped with the product (e.g., stickered labels applied by the retailer placed in the shipping container at the establishment where product is packed).

Normally, paper ads and shelf tags on grocery store aisles or meat counters would not be considered a label; however, information about meat products displayed in the meat department (e.g., flyers about meat products, signs about nutrition labeling, and cooking instructions) should be considered a type of labeling.

Brochures, signs and flyers in the meat department making claims about a particular meat brand should use defined production claims and grades. Store display counters that have packages of more than one brand, grade or claim should identify the particular products for each specific brand, grade and claim and should be kept separate from other products that are not graded or do not have claims.

FSIS sets label standards for the type of meat that must be in products using certain names and terms. Examples:

The Uniform Retail Meat Identity Standards system (URMIS) provides the common names that are accepted by FSIS for naming meat cuts.

Compliance with labeling establishes a consistent language premise that eliminates confusion with consumers and provides a common language for the marketing and merchandising of meat products.

FSIS monitors product labels in federally inspected plants as part of the label verification activities and conducts routine marketplace surveillance to evaluate labeling compliance.

Labeling Requirement Rules

All meat products distributed in interstate commerce must bear the USDA-approved label. This includes all product types and all levels of the packaging hierarchy.

Immediate containers are the receptacle or other covering in which any product is directly contained or wholly or partially enclosed. Common examples of immediate containers are cardboard cartons (cases), sealed bags, case-ready packages, transparent film bags (vacuum-packed), and any type of consumer package, including tray-packed, random-weight meat cuts and ground meats, and fixed-weight packages of meat products.

The manner in which a meat product is packaged when shipped from an inspected establishment determines what information should appear on the label of the packaged product. The rules vary depending upon whether the product is a processed or prepared meat product or an unprocessed meat cut. The rules also vary upon the type of package or container in which the product is packed and shipped.

In the meat supply chain, products are typically packaged by Product Types and Packaging Types. Product Types are based on the product's net quantity measurement.

Product Types Definition Product Examples
Fixed-weight A specific product that is always produced and sold at the same weight and price Sausage, bacon, hot dogs, cold cuts, and ground meat chubs
Variable-weight A specific product for which the weight and price typically varies from unit to unit Wholesale cuts, steaks, chops, roast, hams, corned beef, ground, and sausage products

Packaging Types are consumer packaging methods based on how products are fabricated, packaged and delivered by suppliers to retailers, wholesalers or distributors.

Packaging Types Definition Product Examples
Consumer-Ready Processed and packaged for consumer sale; price-labeled by the supplier Cold cuts, hot dogs, ground meat chubs, and poultry productsv
Case-Ready Processed and packaged for consumer sale by the supplier; price-labeled by the retailer Hams, ground meat products, further prepared (seasoned, marinated) products, and chilled meat cuts
Tray-Ready Processed and bulk-packed into sealed bags by the supplier; packaged for consumer sale and price-labeled by the retailer Smoked ham hocks, meat byproducts, and chilled meat cuts
Store Processed Wholesale cuts of meat vacuum-packed by the supplier; cut and packaged for consumer sale and price-labeled by the retailer Meat primals, sub-primals and coarse ground tubes

Fixed-Weight Product Type

As a general rule, all fixed-weight products are processed, packaged and labeled by suppliers. Fixed-weight products are pre-packaged in a consumer-ready package that has a barcode with the price embedded.

Retailers use the supplier's labeling from receiving to point of sale.

Consumer Package Label Features Supplier Requirement Retailer Requirement *
Product name Yes None
Ingredients statement Yes None
Name and place of business Yes None
Net quantity of contents Yes None
Inspection legend / Establishment number Yes None
Handling statement Yes None
Nutrition facts Yes None
Safe handling instructions Yes None

* There are no retailer labeling requirements, providing the product is not opened or rewrapped by the retailer.

Variable-Weight Product Types

Variable-weight meat products net quantity is a per-pound measurement and varies from unit to unit (also known as "variable-measure" products).

Case-Ready Consumer Package Type

As a general rule, most case-ready, random-weight products are processed, packaged and labeled by the supplier. The retailer adds a scale price label.

Consumer Package Label Features Supplier Requirement Retailer Requirement - 1
Product name Yes Yes - 2
Ingredients statement Yes No
Name and place of business Yes Yes - 3
Net quantity of contents No Yes - 4
Inspection legend / Establishment number Yes No
Handling statement Yes Yes
Nutrition facts Yes No
Safe handling instructions Yes Yes
  1. The above listed requirements are based on the following:
    • Supplier's label being affixed to the product package
    • Package should not be opened or rewrapped by the retailer
    • Retailer's label should not cover the supplier's label
  2. Product Name should be the same
  3. Name and place of business should be specific to retailer
  4. Net quantity of contents is controlled by retailer and should be random-weight and total price compliant

Tray-Ready Consumer Package Type

Tray-ready products are typically meat cuts or byproducts, which require no retailer processing. The retailer packages the supplier processed product and adds the final price label.

Consumer Package Label Features Supplier Requirement Retailer Requirement
Product name None Yes
Ingredients statement None No
Name and place of business None Yes
Net quantity of contents None Yes
Inspection legend / Establishment number None No
Handling statement None Yes
Nutrition facts None No
Safe handling instructions None Yes

The below examples are frozen, single-ingredient meat cuts that require a special Handling Statement (Line 3). "Line 1", "Line 2" and "Line 3" in the label examples are references only and not intended to be included in an actual label.

Unprocessed Wholesale Meat Cuts

Transparent film bags enclosing individual meat wholesale cuts in an unprocessed state can be considered "protective coverings" and exempt from the mandatory labeling requirements when required information appears on the shipping container in which the immediate containers are placed. Unlike processed meats, unprocessed meats—when shipped—may be removed from the shipping container for resale and further distribution to retailers, hotels, restaurants, and similar institutions if the product itself or the film bag bears a legible official mark of inspection and the establishment number.

Store Processed Consumer Package Type

Store processed products are typically meat wholesale cuts and smaller sub primals that are cut instore and packaged for consumer sale by the retailer. The label for consumer package is controlled by the retailer.

Consumer Package Label Features Supplier Requirement Retailer Requirement
Product name No Yes - 1
Ingredients statement No Yes - 2
Name and place of business No Yes
Net quantity of contents No Yes
Inspection legend / Establishment number No No - 3
Handling statement No Yes
Nutrition facts No Yes - 4
Safe handling instructions No Yes - 5
  1. Product names should come from the Uniform Retail Meat Identity Standards
  2. When the product name provides a complete identification of all the ingredients no ingredient statement is required
  3. FMIA exempts retail stores from meat inspection so the inspection legend or establishment number should not appear on the consumer package
  4. Nutrition information for these products is required at point-of-purchase or on the label
  5. Raw (uncooked) meat products require safe handling instructions

Below are scale label examples of a raw, single-ingredient meat cuts with cooking instructions (i.e., ideal cooking method) included in Line 3. "Line 1", "Line 2" and "Line 3" in the label examples are references only and not intended to be included in an actual label.

Below are scale label examples of product names that provide identification of all of the ingredients utilizing Line 3 of the scale label. "Line 1", "Line 2" and "Line 3" in the label examples are references only and not intended to be included in an actual label.

Below is an example of a scale label for value-added (e.g., injected) pork that contains flavored solutions with an ingredient statement. "Line 1" and "Line 2" in the label examples are references only and not intended to be included in an actual label.

The ingredient statement could be placed on a separate information panel.

Labeling Resources and Guidance Materials

The FSIS Web site provides additional guidance about label approval, label submission, generic approval, and other related labeling information. Please see: http://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsis/topics/regulatory-compliance/labeling.

In 2007, FSIS published "A Guide to Federal Food Labeling Requirements for Meat and Poultry Products" that is an excellent summary document. Click here to view the document.

Consumers can get answers to labeling questions through the FSIS Web site, USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline and state agencies. FSIS routinely publishes recalls, public health alerts and consumer food safety information on their Web site.

References

  1. The Labeling and Consumer Protection Staff. Office of Policy, Program, and Employee Development. Food Safety and Inspection Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture. (August 2007.) Post, R., Budak, C., Canavan, J., Duncan-Harrington, T., Jones B., Jones, S., Murphy-Jenkins, R., Myrick, T., Wheeler, M., White, P., Yoder, L., and Kegley, M. Hogan & Hartson, LLP. Washington, DC.