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Meat labels: What does it all mean?

Bangor Daily News file photo | BDN
Bangor Daily News file photo | BDN
At Manna Inc. in Bangor a donated turkey in a shopping cart awaits pick-up Friday afternoon, Nov. 21, 2008.
By Georgia Clark-Albert, Special to the BDN

What was in that chicken or beef you had for dinner last night? Was it fresh, certified, hormone-free, antibiotic-free or self-basted? Was it federally inspected and graded? These are just some of the questions that consumers ask of the USDA’s Meat and Poultry Hotline about words which may be descriptive of meat and poultry.

First, the inspection and grading of meat and poultry in the U.S. are two separate programs within the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Inspection is done to check for wholesomeness and is mandatory and therefore paid for by tax dollars. Grading is for quality, is voluntary and the service is requested and paid for by meat and poultry producers and processors.

The Food Safety and Inspection Service is responsible for ensuring the truthfulness and accuracy in labeling of meat and poultry. FSIS inspects all raw meat and poultry sold in interstate and foreign commerce, including imported products. FSIS also monitors state inspection programs, which inspect meat and poultry products sold only in the state in which they were produced.

As the industry has grown and changed, the primary concern of inspectors is no longer just animal diseases, for which they relied almost solely on visual inspection of animals, products and plant operations. Today, refinements in animal production have reduced disease and created a more homogeneous animal population. The concerns of today’s inspectors include unseen hazards such as microbiological and chemical contamination. The goal is to minimize the likelihood of harmful bacteria being present in raw meat and poultry products. If meat and poultry are not handled safely, bacteria could be present and might become a problem. Therefore, the USDA requires that safe handling instructions be put on all packages of raw or not-fully-cooked meat and poultry.

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 is made from a food-grade vegetable dye and is not harmful. After the meat and poultry are inspected for wholesomeness, producers may request to have products graded for quality. USDA grades are based on nationally uniform federal standards of quality. No matter where or when a consumer purchases graded meat or poultry, it must have a met the same grade criteria.

Beef is graded as whole carcasses in two ways: quality grades for tenderness, juiciness and flavor and yield grades for the amount of usable lean meat on the carcass.

There are eight quality grades for beef:

• Prime grade — Produced from young, well-fed beef cattle, it has abundant marbling and is generally sold in restaurants and hotels.

• Choice grade — 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.

• Select grade — 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.

• Standard and commercial grades — Frequently sold as ungraded or as ‘store brand’ meat.

• Utility, cutter and canner grades — Seldom, if ever, sold at retail but are used instead to make ground beef and processed products.

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.

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

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, discoloration 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 a good covering of fat under the skin. Also, whole birds and parts will be fully fleshed and meaty.

Grade 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 identified by grade.

Here are some of FSIS’s met and poultry labeling terms:

• Basted or self-basted — Bone-in poultry products that are injected or marinated with a solution containing edible fat, broth, stock or water plus spices, flavor enhancers and other approved substances must be labeled as basted or self-basted. The maximum added weight of approximately 3 percent solution before processing is included in the net weight on the label.

• Certified — Implies that the USDA has officially evaluated a meat product for class, grade or other quality characteristics.

• Chemical-free — The term is not allowed to be used on a label.

• Free range — Producers must demonstrate that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside.

• Fresh poultry — Fresh means whole poultry cuts that have never been below 26 degrees. Poultry should not be hard to the touch or frozen solid.

• Natural — A product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and only minimally processed.

• No hormones — Hormones are not allowed in raising hogs or poultry. Therefore, the claim “no hormones added” cannot be used on the labels of pork or poultry unless it is followed by a statement that says, “Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones.”

• No antibiotics — The terms “no antibiotics added” may be used on labels for meat or poultry products if sufficient documentation is provided by the producer to demonstrate that the animals were raised without antibiotics.

The next time you purchase meat or poultry, look at the labels and purchase your protein as an informed consumer.

For more information about meat and poultry grading visit the USDA’s website at

Georgia Clark-Albert is a registered dietitian and adjunct nutrition instructor at Eastern Maine Community College who lives in Athens. Read more of her columns and post questions at or email her at


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