USDA Grading

This post is another introduction into regulations. As you probably know, the USDA has many departments and functions. What I’ll be covering today is the arm known as the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) and their task of developing, maintaining, implementing, and verifying grade standards.

Why do these exist? Primarily because industrial and large-volume buyers use grades as a common language to ease transactions. They provide a basis for price quotes, damages, loans, and market reports. Similar standards exist in Europe, though they may vary by country, Australia, India, and through worldwide organizations. This is not an exhaustive list. I’ll get into different countries in a later post, but today I’ll focus on a broad overview of the U.S.

Standards have been developed for a host of agricultural products ranging from fruits and vegetables to poultry and beef. If you can usually find it in a grocery store, it probably has a standard. There are standards for specialty items as well, but products that have risen in popularity more recently like goji berries and chia seeds don’t have one. Most grading is voluntary, though if it’s used, the standards have to be followed.

There is a set of standards for each individual item, meaning there is a different one for asparagus compared to cabbage. There is also a different set for asparagus, asparagus for processing, canned asparagus, and frozen asparagus. Don’t you just love the thoroughness of the USDA?

Now, there is variety in how the grades are named from product to product. The most common grades for processed fruits, vegetables, and other commodities are lettered as A,B,C, D, and Substandard, with A being the highest. It’s common for fresh commodities to use descriptive terminology such as Extra Fancy, Fancy No. 1, Fancy No. 2, etc. In this case, Extra Fancy would be the highest grade. The language may vary by item, and it’s the reason there is a specific standard for each one.

Along with the standard is a description of the factors that make up that grade which may include color, amount of defects, uniformity of size, flavor, odor, and others. There may also be a scoring system using these factors to come up with a total number that corresponds to a grade.

The standards and descriptions are often supplemented with inspection instructions. They outline inspection procedures and expand on quality requirements. Inspections can become really useful for things like price negotiations, damages, and quality checks.

Like anything else the USDA does, there is a long and formal procedure for developing and revising grade standards. It always includes an open comment period in the Federal Register, which you may have seen links to in the Important Dates section of this site.

I hope you have a better understanding of how agricultural products are graded. Until next time!

Image by: Charles Deluvio

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