Grading is defined as sorting or classifying whole poultry carcasses, parts, or further processed products according to various groups of quality characteristics.1-6-1 These characteristics or standards provide a common language for buyers and sellers of poultry and poultry products. Through the application of uniform grading standards, the marketability of a particular product can be accomplished. Chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese, and pigeons are all eligible for grading services.

The Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), a branch of the USDA, was authorized by legislation in 1946, driven primarily by military procurement programs for consistency in product specifications during World War II.[7] The AMS implements the federal grade standards and specifications used today on both voluntary and fee bases. Poultry products can carry an official grade mark only if grading is performed by an authorized USDA grader (Fig. 1). All poultry that is graded must first be inspected by the FSIS for whole-someness. Quality standards are developed for a wide variety of products, including ready-to-cook (RTC) carcasses, parts, or further processed ready-to-eat entrees. RTC carcasses with processing defects (excessive feathers, skin lesions, or other trimmable defects, and those with remnants of internal organs) and with ''off conditions'' (slimy, putrid, or sour odors) are not graded and must be reworked. Standards of quality for RTC whole carcasses include conformation, fleshing, fat covering, exposed flesh, discolorations, disjointed or broken bones, feathers, and freezing defects (Table 2). In assessing these standards, the location, severity, and total aggregate area of each defect is taken into account. The final quality rating (A, B, or C) is based on the factor with the lowest rating.[8] Grading standards for boneless, skinless products (breast or thigh meat) include: presence of bones, tendons, cartilage, discolorations, blood clots, and other product-specific factors. Parts or components from lower-grade carcasses (i.e., B and C) may be upgraded (trimmed, deboned, portioned) to qualify as Grade A.

Because products vary in complexity and composition, customer procurement standards for further processed products may also include additional specifications. In such instances, USDA graders can include checks of class (species and age of the poultry), type (fresh or frozen), style (cut-up parts, whole muscle), metal detection, packaging integrity, labeling, net weights, portion control, temperatures, product formulations, fabrication, transportation, and storage condition. Commercial companies can also develop their own quality standards and specifications, for advertising and brand recognition. However, they will not be able to use a USDA grade mark on their products.

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