History of The USDA And The USDA Grading System of Swine

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Overseeing farming industry in America, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has existed for over a century and has played an integral role in assuring the growth, production, and selling of safe poultry and other commodities. Created in 1862 by then President Abraham Lincoln, the USDA emerged as a predecessor to the Agricultural Division of the U.S. Patent Office which Henry Ellsworth created in 1839. Lincoln, who grew up on a farm, showed great support for funding the expansion and development of agricultural technology as well as colleges that specialized in animal husbandry and agriculture. According to the guidelines of the USDA (2014), the objectives of the government agency include overseeing the agricultural production of food to guarantee the safety of American consumers. Despite the altruistic motives embedded within this government entity, recent activities have conjured up controversy regarding its effectiveness in protecting and ensuring the safety of poultry sold for consumption. Many render the meat grading system ineffective in protecting the public from illnesses spawned by spoiled meat. Others view the “standardization of agricultural products” through grading systems as complicated (Kendrick & Hassler 1968, p. 868). Nonetheless, both meat inspection and meat grading have defined the USDA in the public consciousness for the past century in both positive and negative manners, especially in light of rising food poisoning incidents caused by poor meat quality - impacting the quality of nutrition and consumer health (Hoversten). The USDA has emerged as a significant cabinet-level government agency within the fabric of American society despite public debates about its effectiveness or efficacy. The meat grading system, especially the criterion which swine has been judged by, has emerged as a topic of great controversy, but nonetheless provides an interest lens through which the public can judge the effectiveness of the USDA is protecting the safety of the American people.

The history of the USDA reflects the importance of government regulation and oversight of cabinet agencies as well as the need for federal oversight of food consumption in the United States in the modern era. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (2014), 1865 marked a key year in which Congress identified the quarantine of animals as an important action in order to regulate the importation of animals. Furthermore, in 1884, the Bureau of Animal Industry emerged within the USDA to ensure that infected and diseased animals would not be sold for human consumption through food in the agricultural sector. Upton Sinclair’s seminal monograph The Jungle, published in 1905, greatly affected how the meat-packing industry was regulated during the outset of the twentieth century. Sinclair depicts the horrific conditions of meatpacking districts in the city of Chicago, contending that the conditions were so horrid that changes must occur. As a result, President Theodore Roosevelt passed the Food and Drug Act of 1960 as well as the Meat Inspection Act in order to address various concerns regarding the USDA power over the regulation of poultry. Meat inspection and meat grading, however, cannot be conflated. According to Erik Hoversten (2000), the federal government mandated the USDA to carefully inspect the quality of meat under the 1906 Federal Meat Inspection Act in the sale of poultry for both domestic and international sale. The meet grading system, however emerged as a voluntary system by the Agricultural Marketing Service as part of the USDA. Despite the skepticism regarding the USDA and the regulation of poultry, it becomes evident that the ambivalence towards the USDA and its supervision over the quality of meat has resulted in ambivalent attitudes towards the effectiveness of the USDA and has affirmed that those who espouse its efficacy as unmerited.

Although the USDA had been created during the middle of the nineteenth century, meat grading emerged at the outset of the twentieth century in the United States. Harris, Cross, and Savell (1996) from the University of Texas A&M University (1996) proffered a concise history of the meat grading system in the United States. Its etiology dates back to 1992 when Herbert Mumford, a professor of agriculture at the University of Illinois, penned and published a plethora of bulletins that supported the implementation of a system of grading that would guarantee the public safety of American meat consumers. These bulletins, entitled “Market Classes and Grades of Cattle with Suggestions for Interpreting Market Quotations,” called for the need to establish a class and grading system for cattle in order for the press to report about the poultry market conditions as well as to set standards for cattle breeders regarding the safety requirements for the quality of meat sold on the market to American consumers. He discussed seven various market grades such as prime, good, medium, and cutter, while also supplementing them with photographs of the various poultry classes. These bulletins set the groundwork for a uniform grading standard that the livestock and meat industries would be subject to once a branch of the USDA adopted it as a voluntary component of its program (Harris, Cross & Savell, 1996). As a result, in 1914 the USDA received funding in order to study marketing within the agricultural sector because Mumford sparked the necessity for grading and marketing reports. As a result, in 1916 the National Livestock Market News Service was passed by Congress, which called for the creation of a classification system that addressed consumer grievances regarding their meat consumption as well as the formulation of a meat grading system. Thus, in 1916 the USDA created uniform standards for characterizing meat, especially beef, by which to categorize livestock, and these standards developed, transformed and modified immensely during its infancy. Congress passed certain policies such as the United States Agricultural Products and Inspection Grading Act in 1924 to allow federal government agencies to impose a grading system on poultry development and consumption. Such standards paved the way for the emergence of a grading system for swine in addition to cattle.

More specifically, the USDA cultivated a grading system for lambs, sheep, and most specifically swine for the market in 1917 which set the foundation for modern-day standards for grading market hogs and pork carcasses. According to Harris, Cross, and Savell (1996), public hearings during the 1920s articulated their opinions regarding the poultry grading system, which focused primarily on beef quality. This grading system emerged as a voluntary system during the 1920s but received a boost by World War II as well as the Korean War in 1950 because federal price control programs implemented during that time period firmly stipulated that beef be graded according to federal standards. During the middle of the twentieth century, consumers expressed satisfaction regarding the federal grading system, and farmers realized that if they produced poultry considered in the top tier of the grading system, categorized as “prime” and “good,” that they could become competitors with national companies that sold beef and pork (Harris, Cross, & Savell 1996, pg. 3). Ultimately, the Agricultural Marketing Act of 1946 codified the federal grading of agricultural products in the United States. Federal standards have varied since the inception of the voluntary grading system throughout the past sixty years for beef, lamb, and pork. Standards for pork carcasses have altered since 1985 to accompany new measurements of fatness as well as muscularity spearheaded by Texas A&M University specialists in animal husbandry. As a result, swine carcasses that contain more fat that was removed when slaughtered would be graded for greater quality. This shift would result in the upgrade of swine grading according to federal standards.

Since the federal government has implemented a grading system for the meat industry in 1927, its prevalence has increased and evolved as an elevated litmus test in order to protect American citizens from illnesses induced by raw meat. Various industries and organizations according to Harris, Cross, and Savell (1996) have immersed themselves in the politics and workings regarding the implementation of meat grading by the USDA and the changes in the standard of grading meat. The Better Beef Association greatly supported the initial grading system of beef in 1927, while the American Institute of Meat Packers sought to prohibit and limit the federal grading system. Finally, the National Live Stock and Meat Board supported federal mechanisms that supported a federal grading system for poultry production, yet such efforts proved futile in meeting consumer desires and protecting consumer interests. Nonetheless, such inconsistencies since the inception of grading beef and swine meat reveal the need for the development of a more uniform, and viable litmus test for meat safety within the masses of the United States.

The United States thus quickly devised a standard rubric to grade pigs once slaughtered in conjunction with the Agricultural Marketing Act of 1946. The standards of muscularity and fatness, according the USDA’s Standards for grades of slaughter swine have shifted and thus incurred relative ease for viability within the standards of the federal government.

The USDA thus has provided a grading system for hogs and pork carcasses and has constantly been revised by the USDA since 1952. According to Buege and Russell (1986), the USDA’s grading system categorizes swine according to the predicted yield that the various swine cuts will produce. Over the years, especially in 1985, the grading system for swine has been simplified and thus shifted the expectations of farmers when presenting their hogs and pork carcasses on the market. Currently, the USDA designates four different numerical grades based on the expected yields of the various meats offered by pigs: ham, blade, loin and shoulder. Grading is predicated on various factors. The last rob back fat thickness plays an important role is measured from where the last rib attaches to the backbone and includes both skin and fat layers (Buege and Russell, 1986). Furthermore, swine are evaluated based on their muscularity, as their bulge, shape and fat content impact their market attractiveness. Furthermore, the carcasses of pigs are graded according to their quality, muscularity, and thickness, The litmus test for poor quality include thin bellies, leanness, and oily or soft fat (Buege and Russell, 1986). While many people consider these standards as arbitrary, they remain intact in order to prevent food poisoning and other illnesses associated with poorly treated swine in light of incidences of food poisoning, swine flu, mad cow disease as well as a plethora of other illnesses spawned by poorly treated husbandry in the modern era.

The USDA has experienced a degree of success in the past century, yet the history of its system of grading meat has demonstrated the inconsistencies regarding the policies of the USDA. Its power has waxed and waned throughout the history of the United States according to the historical context of the United States government. Presidents have reorganized the power of the USDA according to historical contexts and have passed various government policies that have dictated the power of the USDA. Nonetheless, the primary goals of the USDA have centered on protecting consumers and the American public from consuming contaminated meat and other agricultural goods. The grading system of swine today sets a uniform standard to ensure that the best quality of pork is sold to the American public. Nonetheless, an exploration of the history of the USDA and the developing grading system of its poultry reveals a less than altruistic system conveyed by the American government while also demonstrating the complexity of the USDA and the grading system that continues to foster dialogue and debate amongst economists, sociologists, and agriculturists today.


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