Agriculture Department officials said the government would require nutrition labels on meat and poultry products as early as next year, reversing longstanding opposition to such a policy.

"We believe consumers deserve more nutrition information on the labels of all foods," Assistant Secretary Jo Ann R. Smith said. "We recognize implementing mandatory nutritional labeling . . . will not be simple."

Congress last year passed a law requiring nutrition labels on most processed foods, produce and seafood. The law did not cover fresh meat and poultry, however.

The department has not decided on the form of the labels, how to deal with fresh meats packaged at retail level, and whether labels should reflect nutrition content of meat before or after preparation.

The department will ask for suggestions from the meat industry and consumers for the standards, which could be in place early next year, said Food Safety and Inspection Service Administrator Lester M. Crawford.

Consumer groups, which have been advocating more stringent labeling, were skeptical of the proposal. "The USDA is simply too close to the meat and poultry industry. We think . . . the Congress needs to be the ones to set the parameters," said Patricia McGrath Morris, director of research at the Public Voice for Food and Health Policy.