Quick Guide: U.S. Department of Agriculture


The United States Department of Agriculture is the government organization that provides leadership on food, agriculture, natural resources and related issues based on sound public policy and the best science available. The USDA also works to expand the market for agricultural products and enhance food safety by taking steps to reduce the prevalence of foodborne hazards. Through education and working with both other governmental and private organizations, the USDA is one of the key organizations responsible for ensuring that the United States has one of the safest domestic food supplies in the world. The USDA also provides a food grading system that allows food service establishments to advertise and display high quality products available on the menu.

USDA Agencies

The USDA is divided into seven different areas, each of which is responsible for positioning American agriculture as a world leader in quality and safety.

  • Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services. Responsible for providing financial and emergency assistance when needed in order to keep farmers and ranchers in business as they face uncertain weather and market conditions.
  • Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services. Works to end hunger and improve health in the U.S. by drawing on scientific research to provide dietary and nutrition guidance to the public.
  • Food Safety. Ensures that the nation’s supply of meat, poultry and egg products are healthful, wholesome and safe. The main arm of the USDA’s food safety branch is the FSIS. (More information below.)
  • Marketing and Regulatory Programs. Seek to market the United States’ agricultural products to both domestic and foreign consumers.
  • Natural Resources and Environment. Ensures farming practices provide minimal impact to the planet. This agency promotes resource conservation and good land management.
  • Research, Education and Economics. Creates a safe, sustainable and competitive U.S. food system through education and research.
  • Rural Development. Helps improve economy and quality of life in rural communities by providing financial support to public facilities and services.

Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS)

One department of the USDA is the Food Safety Inspection Service. The FSIS is the public health department responsible for inspecting and monitoring the nation’s supply of meat, poultry and eggs. FSIS also ensures that all products are correctly packaged and labeled.

In order to prevent foodborne illness outbreaks, the FSIS also provides education and training materials for foodservice employees and consumers. September is national Food Safety Education Month, and each year The FSIS provides educational materials for a prevalent topic in food safety.

The FSIS also provides weekly product recall updates for foods that fall under the USDA’s regulated categories, so consumers and restaurant operators can be aware of products to avoid when stocking shelves.

Product Recalls: When foods are found to be contaminated by either harmful bacteria or foreign materials, the producer of the tainted foods initiates a product recall. It is the responsibility of the producer to collect and dispose of the tainted foods, and the recalls are considered voluntary.

USDA Food Grading

USDA Grade A Logo

In addition to overseeing the U.S.’s supply of meat, poultry and egg products, the USDA also provides food quality grading systems. The grading system is based on measurable food attributes, like color, firmness and texture. The number of grades available depends on the food, for instance there are eight grades of beef and only three of poultry and eggs. But fruits and vegetables have 312 different quality grades. The USDA provides grades to the following categories:

  • Cotton
  • Fresh fruits and vegetables
  • Processed fruits and vegetables
  • Poultry
  • Eggs
  • Livestock and meat
  • Dairy products
  • Tobacco

Food Grade Examples

Food TypeRange of GradesLowest Grade and What it Means Highest Grade and What it Means 
Beef Prime, Choice, Select, Standard, Commercial, Utility, Cutter and CannerCanner: Rarely used in food service operations. Has a lot of connective tissue and is tougher than other grades. Prime: Superior in tenderness, juiciness and flavor and has abundant marbling (flecks of fat).
Poultry A, B and CC: Abnormally formed with poor flesh quality and lacks fat cover on all parts of the bird.A: Bird shape is normal and has good skin with a well developed fat covering.
Eggs AA, A and BB: The shell may be abnormal and slightly stained in areas. Whites may be weak and watery so the yolk is clearly defined when the egg is twirled before candlelight.AA: Egg shell must be clean, unbroken and practically normal. The whites must be clear and firm so the yolk is only slightly yellow.

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