Let’s Set the Record Straight on Animal Processing and Labeling

When most people think of processing and handling meat, they might think of a butcher carving tender cuts of meat or of dad grilling the perfect, medium-well steak. In reality, a lot more goes into getting meat safely to your plate.

In order to enjoy a burger or a chicken wing, animals need to be processed safely and humanely. To do this, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) developed federal laws and standards to protect animals during processing steps.

Processing Standards in Animal Agriculture 

1. The 28-Hour Law: This law states that when transporting animals that will be raised for food or used in food production across state lines they cannot be kept in “rail carriers, express carriers, or common carriers” for more than 28 consecutive hours without being let out for five hours of rest, food and water. This ensures that animals are in good health and stature upon arrival at a processing facility, as well as keeping all of their five freedoms rights in place.

2. The Humane Methods of Slaughter Act: Passed in 1978, this law ensures proper practices in the slaughtering of animals and further ensures that they will not experience needless suffering. The Act addresses processing plant occurrences such as animals slipping and falling, limited access to food and water, and the exposure of animals to stress. Violations of this act can include immediate suspension of inspection services, which will not allow the plant to operate. It does not apply to chickens or birds.

3. While there is no law requiring humane handling of poultry, there is a regulatory requirement that must be followed. This regulatory requirement states that poultry must be slaughtered using Good Commercial Practices, very similar to the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act. More recently, audit procedures are in place to help identify possible forms of animal stress in processing plants. To add to this, processing cannot occur if USDA Food Safety Inspection Service personnel are not present and inspection of every animal is not conducted.

3. The USDA has a stringent set of rules that meat processors must follow if they want to be a federally recognized establishment. These rules need to be followed to avoid citations from inspectors. They include the Poultry Products Inspection Act and the Federal Meat Inspection Act. They verify that the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act and Good Commercial Practices are being conducted accurately. These rules also focus on labeling and misbranded labels (i.e. a label doesn’t clearly indicate what is in the package). If an animal is sick or injured at any point during processing it will not be deemed fit for the food supply.

After processing, meats need to be labeled properly so consumers and handlers know exactly what they are getting. Inspection for wholesomeness (correct labeling and packaging) is mandatory but grading of meat is voluntary.  If an animal is deemed wholesome, it will be stamped with a food-grade vegetable dye seal of approval.

What Those Labels Actually Mean

“Choice,” “select,” “prime?” If you’ve heard of these terms to describe cuts of beef before, then you’re ahead of the game. But, for those who haven’t, keep reading. When it comes to voluntary grading, beef is measured for quality and yield.

Labels that describe quality include:

  1. Prime: This is the highest grade of quality and is generally sold in hotels and restaurants. Meat tends to have abundant marbling or strands of fat throughout the meat.
  2. Choice: High quality, but less marbling than prime. Steaks from the loin or rib are typically choice meat. These are cuts you would typically find in a grocery store.
  3. Select: Very uniform in quality and leaner than higher grades. Lacks juiciness due to lack of fat.

Yield grades deal with usable meat from the carcass of an animal. Meat is assigned a grade on a scale from 5 to 1. A grade of 1, the highest grade, indicates the greatest ratio of lean meat to fat (more meat, less fat). A grade of 5 indicates the lowest lean meat to fat ratio (more fat, and less lean). Consumers are not likely to see this grading at the grocery store.

Pork is not graded with USDA grades while poultry is graded on a scale of A to C, with ‘A' being the highest quality cut of meat. A grade of ‘A’ is almost always seen in retail atmospheres. This grading level indicates that the chicken is free from discoloration or bruising. Grades of B and C are usually used for cut up or ground meats.

With new knowledge on the measures in place to make sure animals are being treated as humanely as possible, it is our hope that you can feel good about purchasing meats at the grocery store. And now you know what all those labels mean on a package of meat!

We covered animal welfare on the farm and how meat is processed, inspected, and labeled before making its way to the grocery store. But we aren’t done yet!  Check back for our next piece exploring post-processing handling, storage, packaging, and consumption! 


This blog post and infographic were created by Danielle Corrado, food science/policy intern from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Laura Kubitz, and Tamika Sims, PhD.