What do these grades and terms mean when it comes to the food you eat? Are some foods better, safer, or healthier than others?
The food we eat comes from many different sources. During processing and packaging, it's possible for food to become contaminated in ways that would make it unsafe for us to eat. That's why food quality standards and inspection requirements are set forth in the Food Safety Act of 1990.
Not all foods are treated in the same way, though. There are many different laws and different standards that apply to all sorts of different kinds of foods.
For example, meat (like beef) and poultry (like chicken) are regulated by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). The USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) makes sure that meat and poultry products undergo mandatory inspection for wholesomeness. This means they make sure these products are safe and labeled and packaged properly.
The FSIS, however, is not responsible for grading these food products for quality. Grading for quality is a voluntary service that must be requested and paid for by those who produce the food products.
Grading for quality is done by the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service. This agency uses uniform quality standards to evaluate a food's quality based upon a number of factors, such as tenderness, juiciness, and flavor.
The number of available grades depends upon the particular food being graded. For example, there are eight grades of beef and three grades for chickens, eggs, and turkeys. There are over 300 standards that apply to the wide variety of fresh fruits and vegetables.
For beef, you might find several different grades at your local grocery store. “Prime" is the highest grade, followed by “choice" and “select." You may also see “standard" and “commercial" grades sold in stores as ungraded store-brand meat.
Eggs can't be inspected for quality like meat. Unlike the quality grades on beef and poultry, the Grade “A" on eggs merely means that the eggs were inspected for proper size and color and to make sure their shells aren't cracked. So looking for Grade “A" eggs isn't necessarily guaranteeing you any sort of ultimate quality.
Other food grades don't necessarily speak to quality either. For example, maple syrup can receive various grades. These grades don't indicate quality as much as they describe varying degrees of color and flavor. The grades indicate differences but not necessarily that one grade is better than the other.