Ground beef put to the test: Is the fat content for meat the same as the label?

State spot checks 5 samples of beef a week

WEST PALM BEACH - Our hidden camera investigation found you may not be getting what you paid for when you buy ground meat.

Sticker shock has Rex Null buying frozen burgers for his summer barbecues.

"The price of fresh was kind of expensive," explained Null.

You're paying more, but our hidden camera investigation found the amount of fat listed on the label may not be what's on your table.

"I never knew that," Null explained. "If it says 85/15 then that's what it should be."

Meat testing
We bought 15 packages of ground beef from lean to fat and everything in between.

We bought the meat at Publix, Winn-Dixie, Whole Foods, Walmart, and the Butcher Shoppe in Stuart.

Beef Testing Results

We labeled, sealed, packed, and sent our blind samples to an Idaho lab for fat testing.

"If you are setting aside extra money in your budget to purchase that leaner meat you want to make sure you are actually getting it," explained shopping blogger Christie Hardcastle.

Hardcastle helps shoppers stretch their buck with her shopping blogs. She said price is a major motivator for shoppers.

At Whole Foods in Wellington, we paid $8.99 a pound for 90/10 meat. Our tests showed it had 44% more fat than advertised making it more like 86/14 meat and not 90/10.

"It's definitely a concern because as a consumer you want to make sure you are getting what you paid for," explained Hardcastle.

At Whole Foods, we asked for 85/15 meat. It cost a dollar more per pound than the 80/20 meat which we requested. Yet our testing showed the more expensive 85/15 had basically the same amount of fat as the cheaper 80/20 meat.

Whole Foods told us this is either an unfortunate oversight or an issue with testing.

They grind the meat several times a day and test it in large batches. The grocer said there may be small variations when you test a smaller sample.

"I thought Whole Foods would have been closer," explained registered dietician and licensed nutritionist Sandy Livingston.

"They should be giving you a consistent product, but animals vary from animal to animal," Livingston explained. "Some are leaner. Some are fatter just like human beings."

Fat content allowed to vary
The USDA allows fat to be 20% more than the label, the state allows even more at 30%.

The state spot checks the accuracy of labels, but they only test five random samples each week statewide.

State data shows in the last two years, 1 in 10 samples of meat had more fat than allowed.

You can search state test results in our database:

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Null said he wants the meat to live up to what's advertised on the package.

We even found packages of meat with less fat than advertised.

The 75/25 meat from a Boynton Beach Publix was 54% leaner than advertised. The USDA said that would still be within USDA guidelines, because it was better than the label.

In a statement, Publix said Market Ground Beef, which is the sample we tested, is "made up of trimmings from a variety of lean cuts. We strive to be as close to 25% as possible, however due to the nature of that product being made up of a variety of lean cuts, percentages will vary. USDA requires that percentages not be over the specified limits. We are within the USDA guidelines and specifications."

The 73/27 meat from a Jupiter Winn-Dixie was 30% better than advertised.

Winn-Dixie said beef varies from sample to sample, and the grocer strives to meet standards. While the sample was leaner than advertised, the USDA still considers it in compliance because it was better than the label.

Grillers like Null are left guessing what they are really eating.

The USDA will begin spot checking the meat you buy at grocery stores in August, but haven't released the details on how it will work.

Livingston said if you are watching your weight, counting calories, and fat you can broil or grill the meat so it's not cooking in the fat that drains off the beef. Also, you can look at the marbling in the meat before deciding which cut to choose.

Whole Foods Market Statement
Whole Foods Market grinds ground beef, in store, multiple times daily and it is our policy to test each batch for lean-to-fat content before it is sold. Since our stores grind beef in large batches, there may be some variation when selecting small samples for testing. It's possible that the small sample simply contained a larger percentage of fat than the batch as a whole. Then again, this may have simply been an unfortunate oversight. We want to assure our shoppers that Whole Foods Market would not intentionally misrepresent the lean-to-fat ratio in our ground beef and we will be following up with all of our meat departments in Florida to ensure that the correct testing methods and labeling protocols are being followed.

Winn-Dixie
We appreciate your inquiry, and I've researched the topic internally. Beef, like any animal product, will have a certain degree of lean-to-fat variance from sample to sample. We always strive

to meet the standards set by the USDA and will continue to work closely with our suppliers and meat department associates to ensure lean-to-fat percentages are regularly measured.

Walmart Response:
"We expect and require our beef suppliers to meet all regulatory standards. All beef products sold in Walmart stores are processed in USDA-inspected facilities and labeled in accordance to state and federal regulations. We recognize different testing methodology can and will produce different results. As you know, the USDA does allow some wiggle room. While two of the three products you tested from our store are well within the variance allowed by the USDA, we regret your tests showed our 85/15 product as one tenths of a percent outside the allowed USDA standards of 16.5% compared to our 16.6%. Even with the most stringent testing programs, there is always the possibility for a sample to be outside the normal range of the batch.  We welcome the opportunity to learn more about your testing methodology and how you came to determine your results."

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