The USDA grades everything, from almonds to zucchini. But did you know that the grading isn’t free?
The United States Department of Agriculture has two separate and distinct programs involving food safety and food quality. The Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) are the watchdogs over our food. They make sure that all meat and poultry products are “safe, wholesome, and correctly labeled and packaged.” This program is mandatory and paid for by our tax dollars. The FSIS also monitors various inspection programs at the state level. The USDA grading system insures consistent quality of that food. USDA grades for tenderness, juiciness, color and texture of beef, veal, mutton and lamb as well as poultry.
Once the products are inspected, the packers and processors have the option of having the quality of their products graded by a USDA licensed grader. After close scrutiny and evaluation, the USDA grades are assigned to the product and printed on the label or stamped on the carcass. The grading of a product is voluntary, and paid for by the packers and processors. The USDA grades for quality are based on federal standards. Grading can also be conducted at a state level, but state criterion must be at least as stringent as the USDA grade definitions. Only products graded by the USDA can be sold with the USDA stamp.
As Americans we expect that every single edible product is inspected and graded before it gets to market. The meat case seems to be where we have the biggest variety of choices available and the products are clearly labeled. The choices we make there might not affect our health directly in the respect that all of the meat has been inspected and found clean and wholesome, but some of the prime selections just might leave us feeling sick at the cash register.
USDA grades a beef carcass by the quality of the meat AND by the yield. Quality is determined by the amount of marbling (the fat flecks visible within the muscle), the color and the age. There are eight quality grades. The best USDA grades for beef are Prime, followed by Choice and Select. You will also find an abundance of Standard and Commercial grades in the meat case. These USDA grades are often sold as “store brand” meat. The final three grades are Utility, Cutter and Canner, and you will probably never see these USDA grades packaged. They are usually used to make ground beef and are found in a variety of “processed” foods.
Once the USDA grades the quality, they grade the yield. The yield grade is numbered 1- 5, with 1 being the best. The yield grade is determined by the ratio of lean (red muscle) to fat.
There are five USDA grades for veal, but they are similar to the regular beef grades: Prime, Choice, Good, Standard and Utility.
The USDA grades for ovine products are similar to the bovine. The grader looks for musculature, fat streaking, and the shape of the rib bones as well as color and texture. The best lamb meat is Prime, followed by Choice, Good and Utility. Yearling mutton will carry the same grades as lamb; however, the USDA never gives mutton a prime grade. Mutton comes from older sheep, and age affects the texture, color and marbling. The USDA grades for mutton are Choice, Good, Utility and Cull.
I was surprised to learn that pork is not graded by the USDA quality grading system. Pork is evaluated as being “acceptable” or “unacceptable.” USDA judges pork by yield and back fat. To get the tenderest meat, look for a small amount of fat around the outside of the meat, firm and pinkish gray in color, with small amounts of marbling.
Poultry eligible for grading are chicken, turkey, duck, goose, pigeon and guinea. The USDA grades poultry alphabetically: A, B or C. According to USDA fact sheets, usually only carcasses with an A rating are found in your grocery store meat case. Poultry with B and C ratings are sent to processing plants. To receive an A grade, the carcass must be free of bruising and/or discoloration and with no feathers. All products that are sold “bone in,” such as a roaster chicken or a bag of thigh and leg quarters, must not have any broken bones. There should be no tears in the skin and graders look for a good layer of fat cover under the skin. Your bird should look healthy, robust and meaty.
At this time, the USDA does not grade goat meat, although it is inspected for its wholesomeness. With the increasing influx of international citizens, many grocery stores are starting to stock goat meat. You might find it labeled “capretto,” “chevon,” or “cabrito.”
Understanding the USDA grading system, will not only help stretch your budget, but can help you decide how to cook it in order to achieve maximum flavor and tenderness.
Resources: www.fsis.usda.gov/factsheets/inspection_inspection_&_grading/index.asp, Feeds and Feeding Abridged by Frank Morrison