• Wednesday, October 15, 2014

    What’s in a food label? USDA

    This week there has been a story circulating about a grocery store chain that was labeling their meat as USDA graded. My dad sent me a link to the story yesterday. You know you must write a post when your dad has a question, and I thought it fit into my labeling series.

    According to the Washington Post story, the Giant supermarket chain was selling beef packages with the label “USDA Graded.” They were ordered to stop selling beef with that label, not because the claim was untrue, but because it was misleading.

    What does USDA graded mean?

    The USDA has two separate roles when it comes to evaluating the meat we buy in stores and restaurants.

    1.       USDA Inspectors evaluate the animals before harvest and the carcasses and the meat afterwards for wholesomeness. I wrote a post about USDA Inspection last year. To be sold in interstate commerce, meat must be inspected by USDA. In my earlier post, I stated that when meat is inspected by USDA it either passes or fails. If it fails, it is discarded and not sold for human consumption.

    2.       USDA Graders evaluate the meat for eating quality. They take into account the marbling in the ribeye, the color of the meat, and approximate the age of the animal and assign USDA grades, like Prime, Choice and Select, to the carcasses. Beef has another set of grades that indicates the lean meat to fat ratio of the carcass called Yield Grades, but it is rarely used in marketing to consumers.

    USDA grading and inspection
    USDA Inspectors and Graders both work for USDA, but their education and training is very different. Inspection is funded by the government, whereas meat processors pay a fee for grading.

    According to USDA, over 75% of the meat that is inspected is also graded and assigned USDA grades of Prime, Choice, Select, etc. The packers can use these grades to market the carcasses according to their eating quality. Prime carcasses are worth more than Choice, Choice more than Select, and so on. 

    When this store labeled its beef as ‘USDA graded’, all it means is that a USDA grader looked at the beef gave it a grade, but it doesn’t indicate what grade it was assigned. It’s kind of like a teacher grading your test. The teacher gave you a grade. It may be a good grade or a bad grade, but it wouldn’t make much sense to go around bragging that your test had been graded if you weren’t willing to share the grade with other people.

    I'm not going to speculate why the store chose to label their beef as merely 'USDA graded.' Other stores use the label ‘USDA inspected,’ which I think is just as misleading. If meat is being sold, it is either USDA inspected or its state inspected. Otherwise, it would be against the law to sell it. Saying that meat is inspected is almost as pointless as saying it was graded.

    I hope this clears up some of the confusion with this story.

    Would you be interested to learn more about USDA grades?