FSIS Logo Food Safety and Inspection Service
United States Department of Agriculture
Washington, D.C. 20250-3700
Consumer Education and Information
August 1998
Contact information updated May 2000

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


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. If states choose to end their inspection program or cannot maintain this standard, FSIS must assume responsibility for inspection within that state.

In these efforts to protect the safety and integrity of meat and poultry products, FSIS works with many other agencies, including other agencies within 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 century, the meat and poultry industries have grown and changed significantly. In the early 1900’s, most meat was slaughtered and used locally, and further processing was limited to simple products such as sausages. Today, however, a wide variety of meat and poultry products are on the market. Meat is slaughtered and processed in sophisticated, high volume plants and often shipped great distances to reach consumers.

As the industry changed, FSIS began changing inspection. In earlier days, 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 inspector are broader and include unseen hazards such as microbiological and chemical contamination.

Since the mid-1970’s, FSIS has been modernizing inspection to reduce costs and make it more science based. Statistical sampling and scientific tests are important tools for today's inspector.

Safe Handling Instructions LabelThe requirements in the new final rule on Pathogen Reduction and Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) are designed to minimize the likelihood of harmful bacteria being present in raw meat and poultry products. However, some bacteria could be present and might become a problem if meat and poultry are not handled properly. To assist food handlers, USDA requires that safe handling instructions (seen to the right) be put on all packages of raw and not fully cooked meat and poultry.

Voluntary Federal inspection for animals not covered under mandatory inspection (i.e., buffalo, rabbit, reindeer, elk, deer, antelope, ratites) is handled under the Agricultural Marketing Act and 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.

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 it 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.

Inspection mark on raw meat

Inspection mark on raw poultry

Inspection mark on processed products

Seal-"U.S. INSP'D & P'S'D"

Seal-"INSPECTED FOR WHOLESOMENESS by U.S. Department of Agriculture [Est. No.]"



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


Beef is graded as whole carcasses in two ways:

  1. quality grades - for tenderness, juiciness, and flavor; and
  2. 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:

USDA Grade Shield-"Prime"· Prime grade - 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 (i.e., roasting, broiling, and grilling).

USDA Grade Shield- "Choice" · Choice grade - 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, but be careful not to overcook them. Using a meat thermometer takes the guesswork out of cooking and assures a safe internal temperature: 145 ° F is medium rare; 160 ° F, medium; and 170 ° F, well done.

USDA Grade Shield-"Select" · Select grade - 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 cooked with moisture to obtain maximum tenderness and flavor.

· Standard and Commercial grades – frequently are 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.

USDA Yield Grade Shield 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 radio. Yield grade is most useful when purchasing a side or carcass of beef for the freezer.


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


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.


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.


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

USDA Grade Shield for Grade A Poultry · 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. Also, 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.

For more information about meat and poultry grading, go to the Agricultural Marketing Service Web site: http://www.ams.usda.gov/

For additional food safety information about meat, poultry, or eggs, call the toll-free USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1 (800) 535-4555; Washington, DC, call (202) 720-3333; TTY: 1 (800) 256-7072. It is staffed by home economists, dietitians, and food technologists weekdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Eastern time, year round. An extensive selection of food safety recordings can be heard 24 hours a day using a touch-tone phone.

The media may call Bessie Berry, Manager, USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline, at (202) 720-5604.

Information is also available from the FSIS Web site:      http://www.fsis.usda.gov

"The USDA is an equal opportunity provider and employer."


For Further Information Contact:
FSIS Food Safety Education Staff
Meat and Poultry Hotline:

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