Satisfying the Customer

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 out of tax dollars. Grading for quality is voluntary, and the service is requested and paid for by meat and poultry producers/processors.

After the meat and poultry are inspected for wholesomeness, producers and processors may request to have the products graded for quality by a Federal grader. The USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service is the agency responsible for grading meat and poultry. Those who request grading must pay for the service. Grading for quality means 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. So that 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 grade mark if they have been 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.

USDA Grades for Meat and Poultry

The MGC branch uses university-researched, USDA-developed, and industry recognized standards. Grading determines the quality and yield of carcasses. Quality grades vary depending on the species.


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.
Quality Grades:

Veal/ Calf

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 method of grilling or broiling.


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 cooked slowly by the moist-heat method (braising) to make them more tender.


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 the most tender and tasty cut of pork.


There are no official USDA selection grades for live goats. However, there are USDA Agricultural Marketing Service Institutional Meat Purchase Specifications (IMPS) selection criteria for live goats and these are used by regional auction barns and livestock buyers and sellers to assign grades to live goats. These grades are based on the meat type conformation of the goat (how well muscled it is) regardless of fat cover. Selection 1 goats should have a pronounced bulging to the outside hind leg, a full, rounded back-strap, and a moderately thick outside shoulder. Selection 2 goats have moderate meat conformation while Selection 3 goats have inferior conformation. Some buyers will also put in a 4th grade for very unhealthy goats. Utility or “cull” goats are goats that are being culled for a serious unsoundness or appear very unthrifty.

USDA Selection Grades for Live Goats

Fat covering does affect the suitability of slaughter goats for different marketing channels. In the example below, both Boer cross-market kids may qualify as Selection 1. However, the lean kid has little or no surplus fat. He may be ideal if he has been cheaper to raise than the plumper kid, and is being sold on-farm or at a live animal market to customers wanting any excess fat trimmed from the carcass that plan to consume the meat shortly after butchering. However, he has two disadvantageous, 1) his dressing percentage and hence his carcass weight would have been better if he had been fattened a few more weeks, and 2) his lean carcass will be somewhat susceptible to cold shock when put in the cooler. Cold shock (contraction or shortening of the muscles) may toughen up the meat. He is not “market ready” if the price paid is based on hanging carcass weight rather than live weight and he is to be slaughtered and chilled at a conventional slaughterhouse for sale to a restaurant chef putting a top priority on tenderness.

More information on evaluating goat carcasses is available in the “Meat Goat Selection, Carcass Evaluation, and Fabrication Guide available through the Louisiana State University Agricultural Center or on the web at .


Rabbit may be graded under the voluntary rabbit-grading program performed by the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service. It provides a national grading service based on official U.S. classes, standards, and grades for poultry. Rabbit may be graded only if it has been inspected and passed by the FSIS, or inspected and passed by any other inspection system that is acceptable to the USDA, such as State inspection. Consumer grades for rabbits are U.S. Grade A, U.S. Grade B, and U.S. Grade C.


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

Grade A 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 there is a good covering of fat under the skin. In addition, whole birds and parts will be fully fleshed and meaty.

The 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.

Quality Assurances

Quality assurance covers all the activities associated with getting the product to the consumer. From the calf in the womb to the prime rib on the plate, quality assurance involves all associated production, management, and inspection activities.

The goal of a Quality Assurance program is to fulfill or exceed customer expectations. Products should be tested for failure. What is the shelf life of a piece of jerky? At what temperature would a succulent steak be turned into a piece of shoe-leather? Knowing the answers to these questions will help the product from failing, or from the customer failing the product. Statistical analysis may be used to determine the probability of something going wrong. The current sample testing for BSE is one example of employing statistical analysis to test a percentage of animals to provide an extremely high probability of an accurate test of the entire population.

Some quality assurance programs have step-by-step protocols and record keeping requirements. Two examples are Cold Chain Maintenance Programs and Facility Maintenance Programs.

A Quality Assurance Program will include Best Management Practices. Generally, the industry establishes these baseline practices. The owner should also employ practices of due diligence.

Quality Assurance Programs should also include customer service protocol. How will product recalls be handled? How will product be delivered and what will happen to product stuck in transit?

Finally, a quality assurance program must address inventory control. Planning for inventory tracking, inventory turnover, package ID’s, Lot ID’s, storage time and pull dates are all crucial for maintaining high quality products, and thus must be part of the quality assurance program.

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