History of Meat Grading in the United States

J.J. Harris, H.R. Cross, and J.W. Savell

Department of Animal Science

Texas A&M University

College Station, TX 77843-2471

Early History

In 1902 Herbert Mumford from the University of Illinois authored a series of bulletins entitled “Market Classes and Grades of Cattle with Suggestions for Interpreting Market Quotations.” The reasons behind the bulletins were: (1) the necessity to establish classes and grades for cattle in order to report market conditions that would be intelligible through the public press, and (2) the desire to provide feeders and breeders of beef cattle with a thorough knowledge of the classes and grades of cattle as they relate to market and feedlot requirements. These bulletins included descriptions, definitions and/or photographs of five market classes of cattle and seven market grades (Prime, Choice, Good, Medium, Common, Cutter and Canner). There was a growing demand throughout the livestock industry, meat industry and consuming public for uniform grading standards for livestock and meat.

This need for uniform grades and market reporting led Congress, in 1914, to appropriate funds for the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to study agricultural marketing and to establish the Office of Markets and Rural Organization. As a result of this study, Congress passed a law in 1916 establishing the National Livestock Market News Service. This service required some type of classification system to facilitate accurate market reporting. Further justification for this service and the development of a classification system was consumer disappointment with meat purchases and their demand for identifying meat by “grade.” The National Livestock Market News Service would respond to livestock producers’ need to have an unbiased, daily livestock market report and the belief among producers that accurate daily market reports by a third-party (the USDA) would aid them in selecting the best markets for their livestock. These daily market reports by the USDA began in 1917.

In order to develop a uniform class and grade nomenclature that would be used as a vocabulary for market reporting, the USDA began to develop grading standards for livestock in 1916. The first tentative standards for grades of dressed beef were formulated in 1916. These standards were improved and modified periodically for several years as experience gained by their use indicated what types of changes needed to be made. The standards were first published in mimeographed form in June, 1923 to facilitate beef grading for the U.S. Shipping Board and Veterans Bureau Hospitals. In August, 1924 they also were published in USDA Bulletin No. 1246, “Market Classes and Grades of Dressed Beef.” Also in 1924 Congress passed the United States Agricultural Products Inspection and Grading Act which authorized the federal grading of livestock and meat. The tentative standards also were used during World War I in the selection of beef for the Army, Navy and Allies, and they were included in the specifications for purchase of beef by the Emergency Fleet Corporation and incorporated into the purchase specifications by several steamship lines, hospitals, dining-car services, hotels and restaurants.

In 1917, the USDA began developing grade standards for market hogs and slaughter lambs and sheep. The grade standards for market hogs and sheep (and their carcasses) developed very similarly to those of cattle and beef carcasses, but were usually 1-5 years behind.

In 1925 a series of ten public hearings was held throughout the United States to give producers, packers, purveyors, market reporters, teachers and anyone else who was interested an opportunity to express their opinions about the beef grades and to make suggestions for their improvement. As a result of these hearings, the grades were revised and promulgated by the Secretary of Agriculture in June, 1926 as the Official United States Standards for Grades of Carcass Beef and published in Service and Regulatory Announcements No. 99. Public hearings for pork and lamb grades followed in 1927 and 1928-29, respectively. Other sets of grade standards soon followed: Official United States Standards for Classes and Grades of Slaughter Cattle (1928), Official United States Standards for Veal and Calf (1928) and Official United States Standards for Grades of Lamb and Mutton Carcasses (1931). Twenty years later the remaining grade standards were promulgated: Official United States Standards for Grades of Slaughter Lambs and Sheep (1951), Official United States Standards for grades of Barrows and Gilts (1952) and Official United States Standards for Grades of Slaughter Barrows and Gilts (1952).

The beef carcass grades adopted in 1926 were implemented as a free, voluntary service for a one-year trial period beginning in May, 1927. This occurred despite packer contention that it was an unworkable program. Instrumental in getting the one-year trial period started was a group of producer and feeder representatives who had, in 1927, formed the Better Beef Association. During this trial period, the Institute of American Meat Packers (IAMP) published a “Standard Beef Grading System and Packers Guide for Grading as Developed by the Committee on Marketing (Beef) and Approved by the Executive Committee.” This IAMP system was used by many packers for a long time, but the use of these grades is now negligible. At the end of this one-year trial period the USDA meat grading service was continued on a voluntary, fee basis.

In 1939, the Agricultural Appropriations Act transferred the grading service from the Bureau of Agricultural Economics to the Agricultural Marketing Service of the USDA.

The use of USDA grading received a tremendous boost as a result of the federal price control programs during World War II — the use of U.S. grades for beef was made mandatory. Federal grading of beef also was made mandatory during the Korean Conflict. As a result of these periods of mandatory grading, two facts emerged: (1) Purchasers were very satisfied and impressed with federal grading and (2) Regional and local packers discovered that by selling “Prime,” “Choice” and “Good” grade beef they could compete with national packer brands (“house grades”). These facts led to a decline in the importance of national packers and an increase in the number of regional and local packers (a trend that has since been reversed to the point that national packers are now more important than ever before) and an increase in the amount of beef that was federally graded.

Federal grading of agricultural products was authorized by Congress through the Agricultural Marketing Act of 1946.

Important Changes

The standards for grades of livestock and meat have changed extensively and frequently during the last sixty years. In 1939 slaughter cattle grades were amended to change Lower Cutter to Canner. The beef carcass standards also were changed to provide a single standard for steer, heifer and cow beef and changed Medium, Common and Lower Cutter to Commercial, Utility and Canner, respectively. Lamb and mutton carcass standards were modified in 1940 to change Medium and Common to Commercial, Utility and Canner, respectively. Lamb and mutton carcass standards were modified in 1940 to change Medium and Common to Commercial and Utility, respectively. The same change was made in the veal and calf standards. In 1941 the carcass beef standards were changed to establish the following grade terminology for all beef: Prime, Choice, Good, Commercial, Utility, Cutter and Canner.

No additional changes were made until 1949, when all reference to fat color was eliminated from carcass beef standards. Then, in 1950, carcass beef standards were amended to lower quality requirements by one grade. Choice was moved into Prime, Good was moved into Choice and Commercial was divided into two grades, with the top half being called Good. The Commercial grade again was divided, based on maturity, in 1956. The top half was renamed Standard. During the same year, veal and calf standards were modified to change the name Commercial to Standard.

In 1957, lamb and mutton carcass standards and the standards for slaughter lambs and sheep were amended to lower quality requirements for Prime and Choice in older maturity groups. This same change was made for the younger maturity groups in 1960.

One of the most significant changes in beef grades was the addition of cutability grades (Murphey et al., 1960) to create a dual grading system. This dual grading system was first made available for use on a trial basis in 1962. These cutability grades were adopted in 1965. Also in 1965 the beef carcass quality grades were changed to place less emphasis on maturity in Prime, Choice, Good and Standard grades and to specify that all carcasses be ribbed prior to grading.

As a result of extensive research on lamb carcass composition conducted at Texas A&M University, cutability grades were added in 1969, for optional use, to lamb and mutton carcass standards (Oliver et al., 1968; Smith et al., 1969; Carpenter et al., 1969). In 1973 all cutability grades were renamed yield grades and the carcass beef standards were changed to create separate quality grades for bullocks.

Research conducted during the early 1970’s at Texas A&M University led to several changes in 1975 to the standards for grades of carcass beef (Davis et al., 1979; Smith et al., 1982; Smith et al., 1984; Smith et al., 1987). The following changes were made:

  1. Maturity was eliminated from determination of quality grades for all bullock beef and all steer, heifer and cow beef in the youngest (A) maturity group,
  2. Marbling requirements were increased for the Good grade in A maturity,
  3. Maximum maturity was reduced for steer, heifer and cow beef in the Good and Standard grades to the same as that permitted in the Prime and Choice grades, and
  4. Conformation was eliminated from all quality grade standards. An additional change required the dual grading of all graded beef. Due to legal conflicts and court actions, these changes did not go into effect until 1976.

In 1980 standards for carcass beef and lamb and mutton carcasses were modified to provide for grading in carcass form only (no wholesale cuts could be graded).

Further research conducted at Texas A&M University led to several significant revisions in the standards for grades of lamb and mutton carcasses in 1982 (Oliver et al., 1967; Smith and Carpenter, 1970; Smith et al., 1970; Jeremiah et al., 1972). The following changes were adopted in 1982:

  1. Lamb carcasses with only one break joint could be classified as lamb if other characteristics so indicated,
  2. Quality and conformation compensations were standardized,
  3. Muscling requirements were added to the conformation descriptions of each grade, and
  4. Cull grade was eliminated for all lamb and yearling mutton carcasses.

Pork carcass grade standards were changed in 1985 as direct result of pork carcass composition research performed at Texas A&M University (Cross et al., 1973, 1975). The pork carcass standards were changed to provide for calculation of grade based on only one fatness measurement and one muscling measurement. Grade lines also were tightened at this time.

The most recent changes in the beef carcass grade standards reflect the findings of landmark research funded by government and industry organizations and conducted by Texas A&M University (Smith et al., 1982, 1984, 1987; Savell et al., 1987, 1989a, 1989b). In November, 1987 the name Good was changed to Select to better fit consumer attitudes and perceptions as identified by the National Consumer Retail Beef Study (Savell et al., 1987, 1989a). In April, 1989 yield grades and quality grades were uncoupled so that all graded 1989 yield grades and quality grades were uncoupled so that all graded carcasses did not have to graded for both yield and quality. This would allow carcasses that had excess fat removed on the slaughter floor to still be graded for quality (Savell et al., 1989b). In 1996, the grades were changed so that B maturity carcasses with Slight or Small marbling would now grade Standard.

Scope of Grading

Federal grading of meat has increased steadily since its inception in 1927. During its first full year of operation the grading service graded over 4 million pounds of beef. In 1988 12.5 billion pounds of beef were graded. Figure 1 presents the total beef graded by year from 1930 to 1985. The peak was in 1970 when almost 14 billion pounds of beef were graded. In 1989 over 260 million pounds of lamb and mutton were federally graded and over 38 million pounds of veal and calf; however, virtually no pork was being federally graded in 1989.

Involvement of Industry Organizations

Many organizations are involved on a daily basis in the politics involved with the administration and/or changing of meat grades in the United States. Several organizations played a significant role in the early development of meat grades. The Better Beef Association was a tremendous proponent of federal beef grading and was very instrumental in its implementation and the one-year trial period in 1927. The American Institute of Meat Packers (IAMP) was involved to the extent that this organization representing packers attempted to deter the use of federal grading by developing a grading system of its own. Although many packers used this system for many years, either alone or in conjunction with USDA grades, its use today is negligible. A third organization that was heavily involved in the early development and implementation of meat grades was the National Live Stock and Meat Board. The National Live Stock and Meat Board was assigned the task of developing a workable grading system for use during the one-year trial period in 1927 because the Meat Board was considered to be a neutral party that was relatively well-trusted by packers, producers and feeders. The Meat Board did design the system used during the trial period and remained a strong supporter of federal meat grading during and after the trial period by printing thousands of public information pamphlets to be distributed nationwide. During the late 1920’s, the Meat Board even paid a portion of the federal graders’ salaries to keep the grading service going during its early years.

For most beef grading changes, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) and its predecessor organizations worked hard to improve grading to better reflect consumer desires. Many task forces, committees and subcommittees have been formed over the years by NCBA to study beef grading and to make recommendations to USDA about possible changes in beef quality and yield grading.

References

Abraham, H.C., C.E. Murphey, H.R. Cross, G.C. Smith, and W.J. Franks, Jr. 1980. Factors affecting beef carcass cutability: An evaluation of the USDA yield grades for beef. J. Anim. Sci. 50:841.

Burk, L.B. 1944. History of Meat Grading. USDA, Agricultural Marketing Administration, Market News and Grading Division, Washington 25, DC.

Carpenter, Z.L., G.T. King, J.M. Shelton, and O.D. Butler. 1969. Indices for estimating cutability of wether, ram and ewe lamb carcasses. J. Anim. Sci. 28:180.

Cross, H.R., G.C. Smith, and Z.L. Carpenter. 1973. Pork carcass cutability equations incorporating some new indices of muscling and fatness. J. Anim. Sci. 37:423.

Cross, H.R., G.C. Smith, Z.L. Carpenter, and A.W. Kotula. 1975. Relationships of carcass scores and measurements to five endpoints for lean cut yields in barrow and gilt carcasses. J. Anim. Sci. 41:1318.

Davis, G.W., G.C. Smith, Z.L. Carpenter, T.R. Dutson, and H.R. Cross. 1979. Tenderness variations among beef steaks from carcasses of the same USDA quality grade. J. Anim. Sci. 49:103.

Jeremiah, L.E., G.C. Smith, and Z.L. Carpenter. 1972. Ovine yield grades. II. Palatability attributes within various quality grades. J. Anim. Sci. 34:196.

Kiehl, E.R. and V.J. Rhodes. 1960. Historical Development of Beef Quality and Grading Standards. Research Bulletin 728, University of Missouri Agricultural Experiment Station, Columbia, MO.

Murphey, C.E., D.K. Hallet, W.E. Tyler, and J.C. Pierce. 1960. Estimating yields of retail cuts from beef carcasses. Presented at the 62nd Meet. of the Amer. Soc. Of Anim. Prod., Chicago, November 26, 1960.

Oliver, W.M., Z.L. Carpenter, G.T. King, and J.M. Shelton. 1968. Predicting cutability of lamb carcasses from carcass weights and measures. J. Anim. Sci. 27:1254.

Oliver, W.M., Z.L. Carpenter, G.T. King, and J.M. Shelton. 1967. Qualitative and quantitative characteristics of ram, wether and ewe lamb carcasses. J. Anim. Sci. 26:307.

Savell, J.W., R.E. Branson, H.R. Cross, D.M. Stiffler, J.W. Wise, D.B. Griffin, and G.C. Smith. 1987. National Consumer Retail Beef Study: Palatability Evaluations of beef loin steaks that differed in marbling. J. Food Sci. 52:517.

Savell, J.W., H.R. Cross, J.J. Francis, J.W. Wise, D.S. Hale, D.L. Wilkes, and G.C. Smith. 1989a. National Consumer Retail Beef Study: Interaction of trim level, price and grade on consumer acceptance of beef steaks and roasts. J. Food Qual. 12:251.

Savell, J.W., R.H. Knapp, M.F. Miller, H.A. Recio, and H.R. Cross. 1989b. Removing excess subcutaneous and internal fat from beef carcasses before chilling. J. Anim. Sci. 67:881.

Smith, G.C., C.E. Murphey, Z.L. Carpenter, J.W. Savell, and H.R. Cross. 1980. An Evaluation of The USDA Beef Carcass Quality Grade Standards. Texas Agricultural Experiment Station, College Station, TX.

Smith, G.C., J.W. Savell, H.R. Cross, Z.L. Carpenter, C.E. Murphey, G.W. Davis, H.C. Abraham, F.C. Parrish, Jr., and B.W. Berry. 1987. Relationship of USDA quality grades to palatability of cooked beef. J. Food Qual. 7:829.

Smith, G.C., Z.L. Carpenter, H.R. Cross, C.E. Murphey, H.C. Abraham, J.W. Savell, G.W. Davis, B.W. Berry, and F.C. Parrish, Jr. 1984. Relationship of USDA marbling groups to palatability of cooked beef. J. Food Qual. 7:289.

Smith, G.C., H.R. Cross, Z.L. Carpenter, C.E. Murphey, J.W. Savell, H.C. Abraham, and G.W. Davis. 1982. Relationship of USDA maturity group to palatability of cooked beef. J. Food Sci. 47:1100.

Smith, G.C. and Z.L. Carpenter. 1970. Lamb carcass quality. III. Chemical, physical and histological measurements. J. Anim. Sci. 31:697.

Smith, G.C., Z.L. Carpenter, G.T. King, and K.E. Hoke. 1970. Lamb carcass quality. I. Palatability of leg roasts. J. Anim. Sci. 30:496.

Smith, G.C., Z.L. Carpenter, and G.T. King. 1969. Ovine carcass cutability. J. Anim. Sci. 29:272.

USDA. 1989. Official United States Standards for Grades of Carcass Beef. USDA, Agricultural Marketing Service, Washington, DC.

USDA. 1989. Official United States Standards for Grades of Slaughter Cattle. USDA. Agricultural Marketing Service, Washington, DC.

USDA. 1985. Official United States Standards for Grades of Pork Carcasses. USDA, Agricultural Marketing Service, Washington, DC.

USDA. 1985. Official United States Standards for Grades of Slaughter Swine. USDA, Agricultural Marketing Service, Washington, DC.

USDA. 1984. Official United States Standards for Grades of Slaughter Lambs, Yearlings, and Sheep. USDA, Agricultural Marketing Service, Washington, DC.

USDA. 1982. Official United States Standards for Grades for Lamb, Yearling Mutton and Mutton Carcasses. USDA, Agricultural Marketing Service, Washington, DC.

Grade chart

 

Figure 1. Total Beef Graded By Year (in millions of pounds)

*Grading was made mandatory during the years of World War II and the Korean Conflict

Original version: 1990

Last updated: 1996.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.