Last month was a watershed for food labeling.

And it’s all good for the meat and poultry industries.

First, USDA issued a new rule requiring that mechanically tenderized beef be labeled as such and include safe cooking instructions for consumers.

Mechanical tenderizing has been controversial, since piercing cuts of beef with needles or small blades to increase tenderness can potentially cause interior contamination with microbial pathogens. That rarely happens — since 2000, there have only been six reports of foodborne illness linked to mechanically tenderized beef, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — but the process means that merely searing the surface of steaks and roasts may no longer be enough to ensure food safety.

In a news release in May, the Food Safety and Inspection Service stated that, “[Mechanically tenderized] products, like all whole cuts of beef, should be cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 145 degrees F, as measured with a food thermometer, before removing meat from the heat source.”

In an important addendum, FSIS urged consumers to “allow meat to rest for at least three minutes after it has been removed from the heat source before carving or consuming” as a way to further destroy potential pathogens.

That’s a key consideration, and hopefully one that will eventually be as commonplace a consumer food-handling habit as segregating a meat cutting board from one used to prepare produce has become. The threat of foodborne illness from mechanically tenderized beef, while far down the scale of potential food-safety problems, is genuine.

Fortunately, it can be completely negated simply by properly cooking and handling of the raw meat.

What other threats in life are that simple to solve?

Bigger and better

Meanwhile, the Food and Drug Administration introduced updated Nutrition Facts labeling last month, as well. The new labels won’t debut for another couple years, but even though they don’t directly impact meat and poultry labeling, the changes will — once again — positively affect the way Americans chose their food products.

FDA’s revised Nutrition Facts label will include three important changes:

  1. Bigger, bolder type listing the actual calories per serving
  2. A declaration of total grams and a percent daily value (%DV) for “added sugars”
  3. Larger serving sizes, with dual columns indicating both “per serving” and “per package” calorie information

Although I don’t put any stock in counting calories as an effective way to monitor one’s nutritional choices, a more prominent listing of total calories will at least remind us that many of the snacks and processed foods we all blithely purchase are ridiculously high in calories.

At some point, whether they’re “good” calories or “empty” calories, too many is too many.

Second, the added sugar listing is another reminder that the obesity epidemic associated with our modern lifestyles has a direct connection to one nutrient: sugar. Cutting down (or cutting out) the amount of sugar being consumed is the single most important step in dealing with excessive weight gain.

Obesity causes all sorts of health-related complications — none of which have anything to do with eating meat, by the way — and these new labels may help remind people of the real culprit in the obesity crisis.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, larger serving sizes will finally end the farce that food manufacturers have been getting away with for more than two decades, namely, making their products appear less of a nutritional disaster by calculating per-serving nutrients on the basis of three or four potato chips, or a ½ cup of ice cream.

Are you kidding me? Measure out an actual half-cup of ice cream sometime, and then ask yourself if that’s a realistic serving size for anyone other than a baby who’s still learning to crawl.

According to the 1993 Nutrition Labeling and Education Act, serving sizes are supposed to reflect the amounts of food that people currently eat. It’s not that we were all a bunch of dainty eaters back then, just that food companies have gotten away with using way-too-small serving sizes for far too long.

Thankfully, that’s going to change.

When the original nutrition labels were mandated back in the 1990s, meat and poultry trade groups fought a misguided, and ultimately losing battle to prevent their adoption. But once in place, consumers began realizing that the nutritional status of many meat products were surprisingly positive, giving rise to a wave of low-fat/n-fat deli meats and entrées that revolutionized those categories.

The labeling changes this time around won’t be as revolutionary, but they represent another positive step forward in encouraging Americans to make smarter choices about the foods they purchase and consume.

And once again, the meat and poultry industries’ products are going to look awfully good by comparison with many of the overly processed alternatives that too many people mistakenly believed were better for them. 

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.