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How Is Poultry Graded by the USDA?

Last Updated: 24.11.20

 

If you want to raise poultry and you want to learn about the equipment that you need, we have a buying guide on this topic, check it out here.There is an important difference between the process of meat inspection and grading. While the USDA is responsible with inspecting the poultry for wholeness, the FDA has to grade it depending on its quality and presentation. Poultry can receive one of three grades A, B or C.

 

Inspection vs. grading

Before poultry can be commercialized, it has to be inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, or, in short, by the USDA. Inspecting the meat and grading it are two distinct processes that do not take place at the same time. 

To put it in perspective, while the inspection is mandatory and it is paid from public funds, grading is voluntary and it has to be paid by the producers or by the processors of the meat.

 

Inspection

The USDA is the agency that makes sure that the poultry that you purchase from stores is fit for consumption. Under the Federal Meat Inspection Act, all raw meat and poultry that is sold in the USA has to be safe, correctly labeled, packaged and wholesome.

The Food Safety and Inspection Service operates within the USDA and it is the actual branch of the agency that handles the inspections. The federal inspection program began to be used at the beginning of the 20th century.

While in the beginning inspectors only checked for diseases and they only conducted a visual inspection of the animals that were being slaughtered, nowadays the inspectors have to check for unseen hazards such as chemical contamination and microbiological issues.

Because handling the poultry is a crucial moment when bacteria can be transferred to the meat, the USDA also provides producers with clear instructions regarding how the meat has to be handled. Also, those producers that sell raw or not fully thermally processed poultry are required by law to put clear instructions on the packages of the products.

 

 

Grading

After the poultry was inspected for wholeness, processors and producers can ask for their products to be graded by an inspector. Those who decide to have their poultry graded, have to pay for the process from their pocket. The grade expresses the level of quality of the poultry.

The USDA grades are based on the Federal Standards of Quality. Different grades are associated with different types of meat. In the case of poultry, there are three grades that a product can receive A, B or C.

Grade A is the highest grade poultry can receive. Generally, all poultry that you purchase from retailers has received this grade. The grade in itself indicates that the meat is free of bruises, defects, discolorations and/or feathers. Grade A poultry also has a well-developed and equally distributed level of fat under the skin. The meat also has to be free of pinfeathers. 

Additionally, all the products that include bones have to have no broken ones. Moreover, whole birds as well as all those products that consist of chicken parts that have skin on them have to present no tears in the skin as well as no exposed flesh to receive this mark. There are no grade standards for those products that consist of wingtips, necks, tails or giblets. 

Grades B and C poultry are usually awarded to products that have to be processed further. In retail, these products are not grade identified. Grade B poultry is not as meaty as grade-A products and it can also feature tears in the skin, and, consequently, it might look less appealing. Grade C poultry has cuts, bruises, and tears.

 

Poultry adulteration

In some cases, poultry can get adulterated and, thus, it might not meet the necessary standards. There are three different adulteration agents that a USDA agent looks for: chemical, biological and physical.

Chemical agents are usually transmitted through liquids, solids or airborne droplets. They refer to chemicals such as heavy metals, rodenticides or pesticides.

Bacteria, viruses, toxins, and parasites are considered biological agents, while glass fragments, bones, and fillings and metal pieces are classified as physical agents.

Whenever poultry is affected by any of the described agents, the meat has to be retained and it should not be distributed to retailers and consumers. 

 

USDA vs. FDA

The food inspection system in the USA is quite complicated, which is the reason why some might not fully understand the difference between the USDA and the FDA. If you are not sure which agency does what, we have gathered some answers for you.

USDA, or the United States Department of Agriculture oversees eggs, poultry, and meat. As a part of the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, the USDA is known for basically administering food stamps. 

On the other hand, the FDA is only responsible for regulating and making sure that nutrition facts labels are added to all processed foods that are sold in the US. 

Even though most people believe that the USDA is responsible for inspecting most foods, this is far from the truth. In fact, the FDA regulates over no less than 80% of the U.S food supplies. This means that it is the FDA’s job to inspect seafood, dairy, bottled water, packaged foods, etc.

 

 

Who regulates what?

In many cases, the FDA and the USDA end up inspecting the same category of products. Poultry, for instance, is a good example. While the USDA regulates domesticated turkeys, chickens, geese, ducks, and guineas, as well as emus, ratites, and squab, the FDA has the task of inspecting wild turkeys, geese, and ducks.

In the case of red meat, things are equally as complicated. The USDA has to regulate cattle, swine, horse, mule and sheep meat, while the FDA has full authority when inspecting non-specified meats such as rabbit, game animals, zoo animal meat and deer meat, including moose and elk.

Plus, not all eggs are regulated by a single agency. The USDA inspects egg products and the FDA shell eggs. The FDA also regulates egg processing plants, including the plants that pack, sort and wash eggs.

Lastly, products that contain meat are also problematic. The USDA only regulates products that have more than 3% raw meat and 2% cooked poultry. The FDA is in charge of inspecting products that include less than 3% raw meat and less than 2% cooked meat. 

 

Imported poultry

All producers that want to import poultry to the USA have to meet the standards set by the FSIS, or the Food Safety and Inspection Service. The FSIS is a branch-agency of the USDA. The FSIS requires producers to register with the FDA before they import any products in the USA.

Instead of dealing with individual companies, the FSIS works with governments. In other words, all producers that are not based in the USA and that want to export poultry to the USA have to apply to their government first.

There are currently 33 countries that are eligible to import poultry and meat products in the U.S. All shipments of poultry are inspected at ports-of-entry across the U.S. Ever since 2002, a new system of random re-inspection has been implemented. 

 

Egg grading

As you might know, eggs are also graded by the USDA. The grades used are AA, A and B. AA and A graded eggs are usually those that you purchase in stores. The differences between AA and A eggs are not necessarily significant.

AA graded eggs have high ground yolks and firm whites. They also have clean, unbroken shells. Grade A eggs, on the other hand, have the same characteristics, except that they have less firm whites. 

All grade B eggs are sent for processing. They are usually used to make powdered or liquid eggs. This happens because these eggs have thinner whites and wider yolks that might include stains.

 

 

Fun facts about eggs

Moreover, all eggs that are labeled as organic have the USDA seal on the carton. All eggs in commercial production are hormone-free. Almost all eggs that are currently available are antibiotics free. Even though hens are treated with antibiotics, the eggs that they lay contain no residues. 

Free-range eggs are made by hens that have access or live outdoors. However, the nutrients contained by free-range eggs is the same as that laid by hens that live in facilities that use enclosed coops. What is more, all the eggs that one buys from the supermarket are unfertilized, as egg-laying hens are kept separated from roosters. 

 

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