Meat inspection is mandatory in the United States. Learn who inspects our meat, what they look for, and what happens when meat is approved (or not approved).
Let’s talk about meat inspection. It’s not a very glamorous topic, but it’s very important since everyone wants their food to be safe to eat.
Is meat inspection mandatory in the U.S.?
Meat inspection is mandatory in the U.S. The Federal Meat Inspection Act (FMIA) of 1906 required meat inspection for all meat that crossed state lines. In 1967, the Wholesome Meat Act required the inspection of meat sold within a state to meet at least the requirements of those in the federal system. These laws make it illegal to adulterate or misbrand meat and meat products.
The FMIA requires that all commercially sold meat be slaughtered and processed under strict regulatory conditions, and inspected and passed to ensure that it is safe, wholesome and properly labeled
- Is meat inspection mandatory in the U.S.?
- What is the purpose of meat inspection?
- Who inspects meat in the U.S.?
- Federal Inspection vs. State Meat Inspection
- What does USDA inspected meat mean?
- Meat inspection’s (edible) stamp of approval
- Grading Beef: Prime, Choice & Select
- How are beef grades determined?
- What beef grades do not mean
What is the purpose of meat inspection?
Meat inspection ensures that all meat is safe, wholesome, and properly labeled.
Who inspects meat in the U.S.?
Federal meat inspection is the responsibility of the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), a division of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). State meat inspection is the responsibility of each state’s government with partial funding support provided by the federal government.
Meat inspectors are present at all times when the animal is slaughtered and while the meat is processed. These individuals verify the humane handling of animals, and ensure the meat from the carcass is fit for human consumption.
Federal Inspection vs. State Meat Inspection
All meat sold for public consumption is inspected. Meat that crosses state lines must be inspected by a federal meat inspector. Some states, like Missouri, have a state inspection agency to inspect meat. These State meat inspection programs are required to enforce requirements “at least equal to” those required by the Federal Acts. State inspected meat cannot cross state lines for sale.
At Clover Meadows Beef, we process our beef at a USDA facility since our beef crosses state lines.
What does USDA inspected meat mean?
When meat is inspected, federal and state inspectors review numerous aspects of the meat such as:
- only healthy animals are used for meat and they inspect the animals before slaughter
- guarantee that the facilities and equipment meet strict sanitation standards
- inspect meat at various stages of processing
- temperature monitoring
- control and monitoring of the use of additives
- and much more.
The meat inspection process is very thorough, and it’s all or nothing. There is no half-way or partially-passed beef. If beef doesn’t pass inspection, it is removed entirely from the food supply. When beef does pass inspection, it is stamped or labeled with the USDA inspection stamp, which means it is fit to eat.
Meat inspection’s (edible) stamp of approval
When meat is approved during inspection, the meat inspector will stamp the carcass with a round mark made with purple, edible ink. The dye used in the stamp is made from a food-grade vegetable dye and it is edible.
In retail stores, butchers often trim off the stamp so consumers never see it. However, when you purchase a quarter, half or whole beef from our family farm, there is a chance you’ll see the stamp because of how our USDA butcher trims the beef.
In addition to the stamp on the carcass, a USDA stamp must be on every package of meat. The stamp also includes an official establishment number that is assigned to that processing facility by the federal government. The numbers are called “establishment numbers,” and they’re only good for one location. These numbers make it very easy to tell exactly where the beef was processed.
Beef that passes state inspection often has a symbol of the outline of the shape of the state.
Grading Beef: Prime, Choice & Select
Once beef passes inspection, it can also be graded for quality. Grading beef is optional and voluntary. When graded, it is administered by the USDA and paid for by farmers (or large beef packers). At Clover Meadows Beef, we occasionally have our beef graded, but not on every single animal because it’s a significant additional expense.
Within the meat grading system, there are eight quality grades. The grades in order from best to worst are Prime, Choice, Select, Standard, Commercial, Utility, Cutter and Canner.
Typically, consumers are most familiar with the top three grades: Prime, Choice and Select.
Standard and Commercial grades of beef are typically sold as store brand meat. The final three grades of beef – Utility, Cutter and Canner – are rarely sold at retail and are used to make ground beef and processed products.
Prime Graded Beef
Prime Beef comes from well-fed livestock and it has abundant marbling (i.e. fat within the beef). Grain-finished cattle have more marbling than grass-finished beef. You usually find Prime Beef at restaurants and hotels. It’s known for being full of flavor, and very tender and juicy. Only about 2 percent of today’s beef is of the highest USDA grade, or prime, which, has the highest level of marbling.
Choice Graded Beef
The most widely available grade of beef is Choice graded beef. Choice Beef is very high quality, but has slightly less marbling than Prime. It is very tender and juicy. About 50 percent of beef is graded choice by the USDA.
Select Graded Beef
Select Beef is typically leaner than the higher grades. It has less marbling, and also lacks some of the juiciness and flavor of the higher graded meat. The USDA grades about 21 percent of beef with the select grade.
How are beef grades determined?
When the USDA grades beef, they look at two main qualities: 1) quality grades for tenderness, juiciness and flavor; and 2) yield grades for the amount of usable lean meat.
To determine a beef grade, the USDA grader looks specifically at the amount of marbling in the ribeye muscle between the 12th and 13th ribs. Based on that one location of the cow, they can then determine if the beef in the entire cow is Prime, Choice or Select. The reason this works is be marbelization is responsible for giving beef its tenderness and added flavor.
In addition, beef is graded on the maturity (or age) of the animal. As cattle mature, their meat gets tougher and leaner. Since the tenderness of beef is directly affected by cattle’s age, the USDA considers the animal’s age.
In addition to quality of beef, the USDA also looks at the yield grade – or the amount of usable lean meat on the carcass – when grading beef.
What beef grades do not mean
The USDA does a great job grading beef, and they are always evolving and improving. However, it’s important to note that some factors that many consumers now consider important do not go into the grade. These factors include the animal’s diet (grass fed vs. grain finished), the cut, and how the animal has been raised (pasture raised or not).
A side note that surprises many of our customers is that grass-finished beef will never be Prime Beef. The reason for this is because Grass finished beef are more lean so they don’t meet the USDA’s Prime Beef requirements for tenderness, juiciness and flavor.
One more thing!
Do you want to learn more about beef? Join our weekly e-newsletter where we share farm happenings, recipes and beef availability. Sign-up and get a cheat sheet with 9-must-ask questions before buying beef directly from a farmer. Or, we have an entire ebook about beef that goes through purchasing and preparing beef from a cattle farmers perspective.
Here are a few other links you may like:
- What everybody ought to know about beef cuts
- What Beef Labels Mean
- Buying a Cow. How Much Beef Is It?
- 7 Steps to Grilling a Steak to Perfection
- What Do Cows Eat
- Easy Beef Brisket Recipe (oven-roasted)
- The Best Farm Books for Kids
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