All labels on meat and poultry products must be pre-approved (before sale of product) by either USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (for federally-inspected products) or the state inspection agency (for state-inspected products). Here we overview the federal label approval process. (State inspection programs may vary in their process; contact the inspection agency directly for details.)
The rules and processes are not any different for Mobile Slaughter Units than for fixed facilities.
More detailed info on labeling can be found in these NMPAN webinars:
Date: July 8, 2009
Duration: 90 minutes
Meat labels can be confusing for producers, processors, and consumers. Officials from USDA/FSIS Labeling and Program Delivery Division and Iowa Meat and Poultry Inspection, and the operations manager of Organic Valley’s meat division explain the label approval process, voluntary label claims, updated requirements, and how FSIS interprets claims defined by USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service.
Date: October 4, 2011
Duration: 1 hour
USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service finalized new rules in 2010 about nutritional labeling of meat and poultry products. The new rules are effective on January 1, 2012 — that means everyone must be in compliance. On this webinar, FSIS explained the rules and what you need to know to comply. Also, Brynn Kepler of the American Association of Meat Processors (AAMP) described their labeling resources.
Who approves labels?
Labels are approved by the Labeling Program and Delivery Division (LPDD) of FSIS. Their 10-person technical staff evaluates approximately 60,000 label approval applications each year.
What must a label have on it?
Submit your label for approval using FSIS Form 7234-1, with a sketch of your label.
Per the requirements of Chapter 9 Code of Federal Regulations, Section 317 and Section 381 subpart N, all meat and poultry products must have labels with up to 8 required features. Only the first 3 label features listed below will be required on all products. All products with more than 1 ingredient must have an ingredients statement. Almost all products will require a net weight. Only shelf-stable products do not require a handling statement.
- Product Name
- Inspection Legend with Establishment Number (explained below)
- Plant Address (or company address)
- Ingredients Statement
- Net Weight
- Handling Statement (i.e. “keep refrigerated”)
- Nutritional Facts
- Safe Handling Instructions
The last feature, safe handling instructions, is distinct from the “handling statement” feature which has to do with how to store a meat or poultry product that has been processed. “Safe handling instructions” are used for raw products only. A label will only have safe handling instructions (raw product) or a handling statement (processed product) NOT both. Below is a sample of what safe handling instructions could look like.
Some products also require nutritional information and safe handling labeling. Optional features include product claims, graphics, UPC codes, cooking instructions, and others. (See J. Hochstetler’s presentation, on webinar website above, for detail on these label elements.)
Some generic labels do not require pre-approval, such as labels for single-ingredient products with no special statements or claims (e.g. about animal production practices or nutrient content), and products with a standard of identity in Federal Regulations or the Food Standards and Labeling Policy book which do not bear any special statements or claims.
However, producers using an MSU are unlikely to use generic labels, since they are most likely engaged in some form of niche marketing and will want their labels to have the farm name, product qualities, and other messages to their buyers about why their products are special.
Top 11 label submission mistakes
According to FSIS-LPDD, the top 11 mistakes people make when submitting labels for approval are:
- Multi-ingredient components are not sub-listed on the label (e.g., soy sauce, teriyaki marinade);
- The percentage of restricted ingredients is not provided or supported in the application (e.g. % fat in the product is required for some ingredients);
- Binders in the solution pumped into meat or poultry products are not included in product names/qualifiers;
- Ingredients aren’t listed in their order of predominance;
- Geographic claims and styles are not supported by data;
- Nutrition claims are not supported by data or permitted by regulations;
- Only one copy of submission form and sketch was sent – two are required;
- Submission is not legible (labels or application);
- Reason for a temporary label approval is not supported by required information;
- Product name prominence/letter size conflict with requirements;
- Meaningful terms/claims are not validated on the application, e.g., “#1 seller of franks in the West” is not supported by data.
Who to contact for LPDD information and forms:
- Labeling and Program Delivery Staff
- Rosalyn Murphy-Jenkins, Director, (301) 504-0879
- Jeffery Canavan, Deputy Director, (301) 504-0879
Mark of Inspection and Establishment Number
Once an application for inspection has been filed, an official establishment number will be reserved. This number must be used within a “mark of inspection” (sometime also called an “inspection legend”) on all labels to show that products have been inspected and passed by a food safety inspection authority (federal or state). Below are examples of USDA marks of inspection. Each state inspection agency will have its own unique mark(s) of inspection.
All carcasses must be ink-branded with the mark of inspection. All packaged meat products must have the mark of inspection printed on the label of the package. All labeling material must be approved and on-hand before inspection will be granted. Each time you introduce a new product you will have to apply for a new label. All labels must be pre-approved for use by your inspection agency before they can be used on any product (unless you are selling the product under retail exemption).
Putting the Farm Name on a Label
In our experience, most inspected small processors have standard product labels, with their own signature line, available for all customers to use who process meat with them under inspection. As explained above, when a customer wants to put special claims on the label, that label must be approved by FSIS or the state meat inspection program.
But what if farmers just want the farm name on the label? Some processors require farmers to make their own approved labels. Other processors will allow the farm name to go on the standard plant label. Either way is legal: it just depends on the processor. But any label that is placed on the product — with claims, contact information, or anything else — must be applied at the plant.
Andprocessors may quite reasonably charge a labeling fee to cover the cost, in time and materials, of special labeling requests .
Voluntary Label Claims
As part of the label approval process, FSIS LPDD also evaluates and approves label claims that highlight certain aspects about the way animals used as the source for meat and poultry products are raised. The basic requirement is that the claim be truthful and not misleading. FSIS has released new guidelines in Sept. 2016 regarding animal raising claims on labels and what documentation is required for claims like “without added hormones, no antibiotics, pasture-raised, grassfed, etc.”. Please see thisfor clarification.
For most animal production claims, you must submit the following documentation:
- A detailed written protocol explaining controls for assuring the production claim;
- A signed affidavit declaring the specifics of the animal production claim(s) and that the claims are not false or misleading;
- Product tracing and segregation mechanism from time of slaughter and/or further processing through packaging and wholesale or retail distribution;
- A protocol for the identification, control, and segregation of non-conforming animals/product;
- A current copy of the certification/verification, if a third-party certifies/verifies a claim.
More on claims certified by a third party:
If your label claim is certified by a third party certifier – e.g. certified organic or one of the humane certification programs – you must also submit a copy of your certification. If FSIS has already evaluated that certifying entity’s animal raising standards and has determined that they are truthful and not misleading, FSIS will allow your label to bear that certified claim. On the label, you must clearly identify the certifier, e.g. “certified pasture-raised by… (name of certifier).”
IMPORTANT NOTE: Based on concerns about how claims are verified, FSIS is currently reviewing its label claim approval process. The agency is also reconsidering some label claim definitions (natural and naturally raised) and is said to be working with USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service to make the use of the grass-fed label claim consistent. No decisions on these issues had been made as of September 2011, but please check with LPDD for updates (see contact info above).