When you buy ground beef, the less fat, the more you pay. But are we really getting what we pay for at Houston-area grocery stores? KPRC Local 2 consumer expert Amy Davis put local stores to the test to find out.
Cypress Health-conscious mom Jenny Eastridge tries to keep family meals as wholesome as possible.
"When we do buy beef, I try and buy the leanest, healthiest option," Eastridge explained.
She purchased ground beef that was 93 percent lean with just seven percent fat when she recently made tacos for dinner... at least that's what the nutrition label on the package showed. Last year the USDA required ground beef labels for bigger grocery stores. The less fat the ground beef contained, the more you pay for it. That could mean a couple bucks more a pound every time you shop.
"And they sell it to us. They sell us the beef because they tell us it has less fat in it and it's better for you... but is it really?" Eastridge asked Davis. "I don't know."
The only way to find out was to do what the USDA is not doing, putting those nutrition labels to the test. Local 2 investigates purchased ground beef from five Houston-area grocery stores: Fiesta, HEB, Kroger, Randalls and Wal-Mart. We bought two packages from each retailer, one lean package and one higher in fat. We removed the nutrition labels and packed up the beef to send it off for testing at a USDA-certified lab in Omaha where they know a thing or two about beef.
Test results revealed of the 10 packages of we tested three were almost spot on. Two actually had less fat. Five packages, half of them, had more fat than the label indicated.
One package from Wal-Mart labled 20 percent fat actually had 22.6 percent fat.
Ground beef from Randall's labeled seven percent fat actually had 9.8 percent fat.
A package from HEB showed it had seven percent fat; but tests revealed it had 9.6 percent.
Ground beef from Fiesta labeled seven percent fat had 11.2 percent fat.
The biggest difference we discovered was beef from Kroger. The label indicated it had 27 percent fat; but test results showed it had a full 34.3 percent, a difference of 7.3 percent.
Keep in mind, on average; we paid $1.57 more per pound for the supposedly leaner cuts at these stores.
"It is concerning because we want to make sure what is on the food label is actually what, you know, you're consuming," said Kristi King, a nutritionist with Texas Children's Hospital.
King says the USDA does allow stores some wiggle room. For example, beef labeled 93 percent lean may be anywhere between 90 and 96 percent lean. Still, beef we tested from Kroger and Fiesta was outside the allowed USDA standards.
"How can they do that though?" asked Eastridge, from her kitchen. "How can they legally do that?"
A USDA spokesperson told Davis enforcement is handled by inspectors inside meat and poultry plants. There are no inspectors inside grocery stores, where most of the beef is ground and packaged.
"And that's actually very scary," said King.
But here's the good news: The following retailers sold us packages of beef with labels that were almost spot on:
Kroger: A package labeled seven percent fat had 6.9 percent fat.
A package of beef from Wal-Mart was labeled four percent fat, and tested at just 4.5 percent.
Randall's sold us beef labeled 20 percent fat that was pretty darn close at 20.9 percent fat.
The fat content was actually lower than stated on one HEB package labeled 20 percent fat. Our tests revealed it had just 16.4 percent fat.
And at Fiesta a package labeled 20 percent fat only had 12.1 percent fat.
None of the retailers wanted to talk about our results in an on-camera interview, but we received the following statements:
"Fiesta Mart grinds its ground beef several times daily at each of its stores. This guarantees that the ground meat is as fresh as possible for our customers. We do not test each package for percent of fat content-any fat content that is announced on the label is based on the fat content that the type of beef being ground (sirloin, round, chuck) has on average. In general, Fiesta’s meat markets are instructed to “grind lean” even though this may mean any particular package typically has less fat content than it is required to have by the USDA.
We understand that you recently tested a single package of ground sirloin and that this package showed a fat content of 11.2 percent, not the seven percent on the label. We appreciate the information you have passed on to us and to let us know which store the package came from. We do not quarrel with the test result-it is what it is. We are looking into the fat content of ground beef at this particular store, and specifically at the fat content of ground sirloin, to better understand if the unacceptable variance in fat content goes beyond that particular package. Please bear in mind that we sell thousands of packages of ground sirloin each week. Thanks again for bringing the results of your testing to our attention."
"At HEB, we take great pride in selling the highest quality fresh ground beef to our customers. Extensive testing is done at the manufacturing source before we grind it fresh in-store. While there may be some variability in our product, the use of advanced technology and a third party lab testing facility; testing is done to calculate the lean to fat ratio. Each package sold to our customers is well within the variance allowed by the USDA or at the labeled percentage. In addition, the Infratec machine used to identify the lean to fat ratio is calibrated weekly for accuracy.”
"In our role as a leading food retailer, we put a high priority on product labeling and compliance with the USDA and FDA standards. We partner with our suppliers to bring high-quality meats to our customers. Our suppliers comply with the USDA standards by testing a minimum of six samples to ensure the content is within the guidelines. Though USDA compliance is not based on individual sample results, we appreciate KPRC bringing this one sample to our attention."
Kroger Consumer Affairs Manager
“While the ground beef tested was within the variance range allowed by the USDA, our commitment is for all products to have accurate content. Our vendor tests every batch of ground beef prior to packaging. If it is not within the allowable tolerances, the batch is reformulated.”
“At Walmart, we are committed to offering an assortment of ground beef for our customers, with six different lean percentage options. Our suppliers test the ground beef to ensure it meets USDA standards.”
Danit Marquardt, Director of Corporate Communications, Walmart