Dear Jill: Recently, I purchased two 1-pound packages of hamburger, with the intention of forming eight 4-ounce patties for the freezer. I used a kitchen scale to divide the meat accurately. I ended up with 3 patties of 4 ounces and only had 3 ounces of hamburger left. Thinking it was an anomaly, I opened the second package and had the same result. I weighed the meat as a whole, and both portions only came to 15 ounces. To make sure my scale wasn’t off, I weighed a 1-pound bag of flour and a 1-pound block of butter. Both came out at exactly 16 ounces.
Yesterday, I noticed the weight of some chicken I bought was less than the weight listed on the package. Different store, different meat vendor.
My question is, are stores now allowed to include the weight of packaging when printing the price and weight of meat? I know that didn’t used to be the case because I previously have divided 1 pound of hamburger into 4-ounce patties, and it always came out correctly. — Cheryl D.
The United States Department of Agriculture requires packaged meat labels to contain the following information: Product description, inspection legend, net weight or quantity and ingredients. If the product is raw, the label also will include safe handling and preparation instructions.
That said, it sounds as though there’s been some estimating going on at your stores when meats are packaged instead of weighing each package. I would guess the meat counter staff is printing multiple labels, dividing up the meat, and putting labels on each package without weighing them.
While this likely saves the workers time, as you found, it seems accuracy is suffering. I would advise taking your concerns to the stores in question. Bring your receipt and packaging labels, too, if you still have them. By law, your store must abide by your state’s bureau of weights and measures. These bureaus exist to ensure measurements are accurate and also your store’s weighing devices (scales) are accurate. You can do a web search to find your local state’s bureau and contact information.
If you have no luck seeing results after raising the issues of underweight meats at the store level, you can contact your state’s bureau and file a complaint.
In the meantime, when you shop, use the tools available to you in the store to help determine whether or not your meat packages weigh what they’re supposed to. Scales found in the produce department are handy to use not only for fruits and vegetables, but for packages of meat, too. (I often use them to weigh bags of apples or onions. All bags in the bin may be marked “3 pounds,” but I typically find bags that weigh even more. When sold by the bag, get the heaviest bag.)
That said, the scales at the cash registers are required by law to be inspected and tested for accuracy. Ask your cashier to place the meat on the register’s scale and weigh it for you. Or, if your store has self-checkers, these often have a “weight only” button or mode that will allow you to weigh an item without scanning it for checkout.
Do keep in mind the packaging will account for a few ounces’ worth of weight, too, when weighing the packaged item on a scale. Meats such as poultry also will include the weight of any added solution or fluid used to “plump up” the meat. (Whether or not this is necessary or desirable is another discussion entirely, but do note the weight of this fluid is included in the weight of the meat.)
With meat prices predicted to rise this year, we should be diligent in making sure the per-pound products we’re paying for contain what they’re supposed to. Making spot-checks on the store’s scale, or on your own food scale at home, are definitely advisable.
To learn even more about food standards and labeling, go to the USDA’s site at fsis.usda.gov/guidelines/2005-0003.