Grading Produce

Grading Produce

I might have mentioned in a previous article about organic food that the term “organic” wasn’t always what people thought it was. They were not that much healthier compared to their pesticide grown counterparts. However, there is the occasional nagging feeling of ” What if what I am doing is not enough? ” Maybe,  you are still worried about the quality of groceries you are getting. Or maybe you don’t know what it is you are looking for because you haven’t cooked in a while. So, what do you do?

Well, thankfully, we can get some sort of idea on what qualifies as good food based on a rating system set up by the USDA. Right?

The Grading System for Food

Surprisingly, not all fruit, vegetables, or cuts of meat are created equal in the grand scheme of our production obsessed economy. Unfortunately, much like every other part in our lives, like housing and luxuries, it all boils down to money. The grades of meat and vegetables are reflected as a statement of quality and are distributed among what buyers can afford. So, chances are you will not see super grade vegetables in a gas station any time soon. However, if we look at the system, we can get some insight into just how produce and meat are sorted and what farmers are looking at in terms of sorting out quality.

How does it Work?

Produce is sorted into multiple categories against their own version of an “ideal” standard. So, a mushroom wouldn’t be compared to the standards of a grape, because they both have different categorical needs. Within each class of product, whether it be a fruit or vegetable, there are several sub-categories that are checked. These sub-categories include but are not limited to; color, size, presence of disease, thickness, etc. There are several examples that can be found on the USDA website. However, I would be remiss if I didn’t try to at least didn’t illustrate what such criteria even looks like.

Grade Standards for Bunched Carrots

There are only two classes of carrot in this scenario. US No 1 and US Commercial. Both are required by law to be disease free before they make it to market. However, things like size, coloration, etc are varied in allowance according to the USDA regulations.


  • The higher grade, US No1, has a more stringent allowance for which carrots make it to market and which don’t. US No1 has a 10% tolerance for things like a defect in the tops or roots and a 25% allowance for “off length tops”.


  • The lower grade, US Commercial, has a more lenient allowance for aesthetic deviation. Instead of a 10% tolerance for a defegrading system

    ct in the tops, there is a 20% margin of error.


Then, you have a product that is technically unclassified. They exist, are sold locally and aren’t checked for things outside of the usual signs of disease. They do not have to fit an aesthetic ideal, nor do they have to appear flawless for the market. There is a much wider margin of error, but only on an aesthetic level.

The Not So Standardized Grading System

This is just the classification system for carrots. There are different labels for different types of produce, let alone types of food. All of which range from letters to numbers, to a combination of both. This makes it a little confusing for people who want to at least make sure they are eating the right type of produce. It is almost like there is a hands-off approach to the produce grading system. If that is what you suspect, then you are correct.  In fact, the grading of vegetables is considered voluntary by the USDA.

Why is a Produce Grading System Voluntary?

Naturally, the first reaction that everyone probably gets after hearing that is alarm. After all, if it is a voluntary system, does it mean that farmers could potentially harm the US population by a bad batch of produce?

Thankfully, there are a few checks and balances that are in place to both prevent and react properly to something like that happening.

For starters, a farmer would want to lose their livelihood by trying to pass off diseased vegetables in a marketplace. Unless they were motivated by something else entirely, they still have their income at stake with what they sell. Also, when it comes to mass production and selling their produce both domestically and internationally, getting graded is most likely a requirement from the store that is willing to sell their goods, because their sales and reputation of a business is also at stake. There is also the recall system from both the FDA and USDA, which addresses and pulls the defective product.

As to the reason why a standard rating system is not a requirement, I am guessing it has to do with the age of the agriculture industry in America and the interest of the protection of smaller farms that may not be able to afford the processing fees for grading. Whether that will change or not would depend entirely on how the American public feels about it.