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Web Content Viewer (JSR 286)


Web Content Viewer (JSR 286)


Web Content Viewer (JSR 286)


Web Content Viewer (JSR 286)


Inspection & Grading of Meat and Poultry: What Are the Differences?

The inspection and grading of meat and poultry are two separate programs within the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Inspection for wholesomeness is mandatory and is paid for with public funds. Grading for quality is voluntary, and the service is requested and paid for by meat and poultry producers/processors. 

Mandatory Federal Inspection

American consumers can be confident that the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), the public health agency in the USDA, ensures that meat and poultry products are safe, wholesome, and correctly labeled and packaged.

Under the Federal Meat Inspection Act and the Poultry Products Inspection Act , FSIS inspects all raw meat and poultry sold in interstate and foreign commerce, including imported products. The Agency monitors meat and poultry products after they leave federally inspected plants.

In addition, FSIS monitors State inspection programs , which inspect meat and poultry products sold only within the State in which they were produced. The 1967 Wholesome Meat Act and the 1968 Wholesome Poultry Products Act require State inspection programs to be "at least equal to" the Federal inspection program. In states that choose to end their inspection program or cannot maintain this standard, FSIS must assume responsibility for inspection within that State.

FSIS does allow under a final rule State-inspected establishments with 25 or fewer employees to ship meat and poultry products in interstate commerce because of a new voluntary cooperative agreement program. Meat and poultry products produced under the program that have been inspected and passed by designated State personnel will bear an official Federal mark of inspection and will be permitted to be distributed in interstate commerce. FSIS will provide oversight and enforcement of the program.

In these efforts to protect the safety and integrity of meat and poultry products, FSIS works with many other agencies, including other agencies within the USDA, State inspection programs, the Food and Drug Administration of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Since the Federal inspection program began at the turn of the twentieth century, the meat and poultry industries have grown and changed significantly. In the early 1900's, most meat came from local slaughter plants and was used locally. Further processing was limited to simple products such as sausages. Today, however, a wide variety of meat and poultry products are on the market. Animals are slaughtered and meat is processed in sophisticated, high-volume plants. The meat is often shipped great distances to reach consumers.

As the industry changed, FSIS began changing inspection. In earlier days, the primary concern of the inspectors was animal diseases, and they relied almost exclusively on visual inspection of animals, products, and plant operations. However, refinements in animal production reduced disease and created a more homogeneous animal population. Thus, the concerns of today's inspectors are broader and include unseen hazards such as microbiological and chemical contamination.

The requirements in the "Pathogen Reduction; Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) Systems" final rule are designed to minimize the likelihood of harmful bacteria contaminating raw meat and poultry products. However, some bacteria could be present and might become a problem if meat and poultry are not handled safely. To assist food handlers, the USDA requires that safe handling instructions be put on all packages of raw and not fully cooked meat and poultry.

Safe Handling Label

FSIS's HACCP Systems mandate measures to target and reduce the presence of pathogenic organisms in meat and poultry products. These measures include FSIS testing to verify pathogen reduction performance standards are being met; plant microbial testing to verify process control for fecal contamination; written sanitation standard operating procedures (SOPs); and a mandatory HACCP system in all meat and poultry plants. The implementation of HACCP by FSIS helps ensure the safety of the meat, poultry, and egg products supply. To learn more, visit FSIS's Web page on HACCP.

Every establishment is required to reassess the adequacy of its HACCP plan at least annually and whenever any changes occur that could affect its hazard analysis or alter its HACCP plan. The establishment may reassess its HACCP plan, or plans, any time during the calendar year to meet the annual reassessment requirement.

Meat that has been federally inspected and passed for wholesomeness is stamped with a round purple mark. The dye used to stamp the grade and inspection marks onto a meat carcass is made from a food-grade vegetable dye and is not harmful. (The exact formula is proprietary/owned by the maker of the dye.) The mark is put on carcasses and major cuts. After trimming, the mark might not appear on retail cuts such as roasts and steaks. However, meat that is packaged in an inspected facility will have an inspection mark which identifies the plant on the label.

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Image of Meat Inspection Mark Inspection mark on raw meat
Image of Poultry Inspection Mark Inspection mark on raw poultry
Image of Processed Mark Inspection mark on processed products

Voluntary Federal inspection for animals not covered under mandatory inspection (i.e., buffalo, rabbit, reindeer, elk, deer, antelope) is handled under the Agricultural Marketing Act. This Act gives the Secretary of Agriculture the authority to take whatever steps are necessary to make the product marketable. The FSIS inspector must have knowledge about that particular species and the carcass must fit available equipment in the plant. Businesses that request voluntary inspection must pay an hourly fee for the service whereas mandatory inspection is funded by tax dollars.

For voluntary inspection, the mark of inspection (as referenced in 9 CFR 352.7-Marking Inspected Products) illustrates the mark to be the shape of a triangle for exotic species.

Mark of voluntary inspection

For application to exotic animal carcasses, primal parts and cuts therefrom, exotic animal livers, exotic animal tongues, and exotic animal hearts.

The establishment number of the official exotic animal establishment where the product is prepared shall be used in lieu thereof.

Mark of voluntary inspection

For the inspection of rabbits, as per 9 CFR 354.63 the mark of inspection is the same as the inspection mark for raw poultry.

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After meat and poultry are inspected for wholesomeness, producers and processors may request that they have products graded for quality by a licensed Federal grader. The USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service (http://www.ams.usda.gov) is the agency responsible for grading meat and poultry. Those who request grading must pay for the service. Grading for quality means the evaluation of traits related to tenderness, juiciness, and flavor of meat; and, for poultry, a normal shape that is fully fleshed and meaty and free of defects.

USDA grades are based on nationally uniform Federal standards of quality. No matter where or when a consumer purchases graded meat or poultry, it must have met the same grade criteria. The grade is stamped on the carcass or side of beef and is usually not visible on retail cuts. However, retail packages of beef, as well as poultry, will show the U.S. grade mark if they have been officially graded.

The grade symbol and wording are no longer copyrighted; however, according to the Truth in Labeling Law, it is illegal to mislead or misrepresent the shield or wording.

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USDA Grades for Meat and Poultry

Beef is graded as whole carcasses in two ways:

  • quality grades - for tenderness, juiciness, and flavor; and
  • yield grades - for the amount of usable lean meat on the carcass. There are eight quality grades for beef. Quality grades are based on the amount of marbling (flecks of fat within the lean), color, and maturity.

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Quality Grades:

  • Prime grade Image of Prime Label is produced from young, well-fed beef cattle. It has abundant marbling and is generally sold in restaurants and hotels. Prime roasts and steaks are excellent for dry-heat cooking (broiling, roasting, or grilling).

  • Choice grade Image of Choice Label is high quality, but has less marbling than Prime. Choice roasts and steaks from the loin and rib will be very tender, juicy, and flavorful and are, like Prime, suited to dry-heat cooking. Many of the less tender cuts, such as those from the rump, round, and blade chuck, can also be cooked with dry heat if not overcooked. Such cuts will be most tender if "braised" — roasted, or simmered with a small amount of liquid in a tightly covered pan.

  • Select grade Image of Select Label is very uniform in quality and normally leaner than the higher grades. It is fairly tender, but, because it has less marbling, it may lack some of the juiciness and flavor of the higher grades. Only the tender cuts (loin, rib, sirloin) should be cooked with dry heat. Other cuts should be marinated before cooking or braised to obtain maximum tenderness and flavor.

  • Standard and Commercial grades are frequently sold as ungraded or as "store brand" meat.

  • Utility, Cutter, and Canner grades are seldom, if ever, sold at retail but are used instead to make ground beef and processed products.

Note: Grades such as Prime, Choice and Select are not acceptable terms for raw cuts of pork or poultry.

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Yield grades
range from "1" to "5" and indicate the amount of usable meat from a carcass. Yield grade 1 is the highest grade and denotes the greatest ratio of lean to fat; yield grade 5 is the lowest yield ratio. Though yield grades are not something consumers normally see, they are most useful when purchasing a side or carcass of beef for the freezer.

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There are five grades for Veal/Calf: prime, choice, good, standard, and utility.

  • Prime and choice grades are juicier and more flavorful than the lower grades. Because of the young age of the animals, the meat will be a light grayish-pink to light pink, fairly firm, and velvety. The bones are small, soft, and quite red. Cuts such as chops can be cooked by the dry-heat methods of roasting, grilling or broiling.

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There are five grades for lamb. Normally only two grades are found at the retail level — prime and choice. Lower grades of lamb and mutton (meat from older sheep) — good, utility, and cull — are seldom marked with the grade. Lamb is produced from animals less than a year old. Since the quality of lamb varies according to the age of the animal, it is advisable to buy lamb that has been USDA graded.

  • Prime grade is very high in tenderness, juiciness, and flavor. Its marbling enhances both flavor and juiciness.
  • Choice grade has slightly less marbling than prime, but still is of very high quality. Most cuts of prime and choice grade lamb (chops, roasts, shoulder cuts, and leg) are tender and can be cooked by the dry-heat methods (broiling, roasting, or grilling). The less tender cuts — breast, riblets, neck, and shank — can be braised to make them more tender.

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Pork is not graded with USDA quality grades as it is generally produced from young animals that have been bred and fed to produce more uniformly tender meat. Appearance is an important guide in buying fresh pork. Look for cuts with a relatively small amount of fat over the outside and with meat that is firm and grayish pink in color. For best flavor and tenderness, meat should have a small amount of marbling.

Pork's consistency makes it suitable for a variety of cooking styles. Chops can be prepared by pan broiling, grilling, baking, braising, or sautéing. Ribs can be braised, roasted, or grilled. Slow cooking yields the most tender and flavorful results. Tenderloins are considered to be the most tender and tasty cut of pork.

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The USDA grades for poultry are A, B, and C.

  • Grade A Image of Grade A Label is the highest quality and the only grade that is likely to be seen at the retail level. This grade indicates that the poultry products are virtually free from defects such as bruises, discolorations, and feathers. Bone-in products have no broken bones. For whole birds and parts with the skin on, there are no tears in the skin or exposed flesh that could dry out during cooking, and a good covering of fat under the skin. Also, whole birds and parts will be fully fleshed and meaty.

    The U.S. grade shield for poultry may be found on the following chilled or frozen ready-to-cook poultry products: whole carcasses and parts, as well as roasts, tenderloins, and other boneless and/or skinless poultry products that are being marketed. There are no grade standards for necks, wing tips, tails, giblets, or ground poultry.

  • Grades B and C poultry are usually used in further-processed products where the poultry meat is cut up, chopped, or ground. If sold at retail, they are usually not grade identified.

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Food Safe Families

By following four simple steps, you can help keep your family safe from food poisoning at home.

  • CLEAN. Wash hands and surfaces often.
  • SEPARATE. Separate raw meats from other foods.
  • COOK. Cook food to the right temperature.
  • CHILL. Refrigerate food promptly.

For more information about meat and poultry grading, go to USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) Web site at www.ams.usda.gov/

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Last Modified Jun 03, 2014