With all the supermarket labels grading goods Fancy and Extra Fancy, Grade A, B or C, Prime and Choice, consumers figure the industry has some very vigilant government watchdogs regulating quality claims.
There is some government vigilance, but it's not necessarily reflected in the signs and labels. In fact, most of the signs and labels were not meant for the consumer at all.
Some of what's sold in supermarkets has to meet standards set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's regulatory arm--the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service. The service concentrates on meat and poultry; inspectors are "required to be in every slaughterhouse and inspect every animal, ante-mortem and post-mortem," says John McCutcheon, deputy administrator for technical services. The USDA circle stamp must go on every animal inspected, although the consumer doesn't see it after a bird or a side of beef is cut up.
The inspection assures that the meat is "wholesome, unadulterated and not misbranded." Adulterated meat contains substances (poisons, antibiotic residues) making it injurious to health; unwholesome meat could also be something just "obnoxious to you aesthetically," McCutcheon says, but not necessarily dangerous.
A misbranded meat or meat product is one that's misrepresented: "Beef" is horse meat, or bacon isn't really bacon, or prepared foods, McCutcheon says, don't meet "standards of composition, which can be surprisingly specific. "Beef stroganoff" must be 45% beef, a frankfurter can't be more than 10% water or 30% fat, and hamburgers (unlike "variety meats") cannot contain organ parts.
What the federal government doesn't cover, the state may. In California, for example, fresh fruit, vegetables, nuts and honey must meet "minimum standards," and if they "fail to meet our standards, they cannot be sold," says Gary Manning, supervisor of fruit and vegetable quality control standardization for California's Department of Agriculture. The department looks out for insect injury, mold, fungi, freeze injury, excessive immaturity (once picked, some things never ripen) or maturity--all problems that may not endanger health but do "reduce the shelf life of the product."
In California, eggs, too, must be sized and graded, and egg producers are periodically visited, unannounced, and their eggs inspected. Most of the eggs sold in supermarkets to consumers are Large--the third largest of six possible sizes. Most are also graded AA, the top of three grades that depend on the egg's cleanliness, shell soundness and any signs of age or spots of blood and meat revealed when it's candled.
Most of the above are pass/fail standards: The consumer can assume quality if something's on the shelf. Most of the descriptive grades (Fancy/Extra Fancy, Prime/Choice) are equally official but voluntary, provided (for a fee) by the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service. Most are also meant for the trade rather than the consumer, providing accepted designations of quality, says a marketing service official, so that "when shipper and receiver are talking about a certain grade, they know what they're talking about. The grading provides protection for the people involved in the contract."
The best-known grades appear on beef (lamb and veal are similarly graded). Beef cuts, says Eugene Martin, chief of the marketing service's meat grading branch, are assigned "quality grades that reflect palatability"--a combination of juiciness, tenderness and flavor that depends on the amount of fat marbled through the muscle.
Of the eight grades--Prime, Choice, Good, Standard, Commercial, Utility, Cutter and Canner--the last four are generally from lower-quality, older cattle, and used in processed foods, and the first four are most likely to appear in meat departments. There are also five "yield" grades for the amount of muscling and the thickness of external fat, with Grade 1 being the leanest.
Of the beef fattened up at feedlots, two-thirds is graded Prime or Choice. Much of the remaining third--evaluated but not marked--"would qualify for the grade of 'Good,' " Martin says, and may end up with a store's house label--"Star" perhaps, or "Best," or "Golden Premium." Only 5% is Prime, destined mostly for restaurants and gourmet shops, with Choice the traditional top grade in supermarkets. But concern over fat and cholesterol have made the leaner Good category more attractive and marketable, and this month, Good will be officially renamed "Select" and probably heavily promoted, thus upending the old scale of preference.