Agricultural Marketing Service Dairy Division: Grading

Agricultural Marketing Service

Program Objectives

To assist the dairy industry in marketing high-quality dairy products by providing buyers and sellers with an impartial appraisal of product quality and to provide the consumer confidence in buying.

The following two sections provide an overview of Grading.

  1. Benefits of the Program
  2. Program Operations
  3. Plant inspections and equipment reviews
  4. Inspection and grading
  5. Dairy product grades and quality approval
  6. Resident grading and quality control

Benefits of the Program

Provides buyers and sellers with an impartial appraisal of product quality
Stimulates manufacturers to produce uniformly high-quality, stable products
Assures the quality of dairy products so consumers can buy with confidence

Program Operations

Official dairy product grading is recognized by dairy producers, processors, wholesalers, buyers, food service industry, and others as a vital link in their marketing chain. The use of dairy grades and certifications is also increasing internationally.

Inspection and grading activities are carried out through four major programs which help to improve the quality, manufacture, and distribution of dairy products -- plant inspections and equipment reviews, inspection and grading, dairy product grades and quality approval, and resident grading and quality control.

Plant inspections and equipment reviews

Inspection and grading services assure the quality of dairy products and are offered to the dairy industry on a voluntary basis. Official approval of a manufacturing plant is a prerequisite for grading. Therefore, a consumer can tell if the products were produced in a USDA-approved plant by looking for the grade shield on products such as butter, Cheddar cheese, and instant nonfat dry milk. The shield means that every lot has been certified by an inspector as meeting the grade requirements. It does not necessarily apply to all manufactured products, but only to the specific product on which it appears.

Only after an inspection shows that a plant has substantially met the requirements outlined in USDA's General Specifications for Approved Dairy Plants can the plant qualify for the other services of grading, sampling, testing, and certification of its product.

This inspection tells a plant manager about the quality of raw material, sanitation, condition of plant and equipment, and processing procedures--factors affecting the quality and wholesomeness of the finished product. The plant manager may use the inspection findings to assure customers of safe, uniform, high-quality products.

A dairy inspector conducts each plant inspection. Each inspection is tailored to the nature of the plant. The inspector meets with the plant manager to review the survey results. If any deficiencies exist, the inspector explains to the plant manager the steps to be taken before approval can be granted.

After corrections are made, the inspector makes another inspection before granting an "approved" status. Once approved, a plant does not automatically keep its status. A plant must be inspected at least twice a year to maintain its eligibility.

Equipment and process reviews are based on an examination of engineering drawings or of actual equipment, often with the participation of design engineers. This program is closely associated with the Plant Inspection Program. Most of the review activity concerns newly developed technology and machines for which guidance and policy must be developed. Dairy Division staff members also participate in the efforts of the 3-A Sanitary Standards Committees for the development of dairy equipment standards. Dairy product grades and quality approval

Inspection and Grading

Grades are based on nationally uniform standards developed by Dairy Division experts in cooperation with industry representatives. Sellers can request grading services to assure that products meet specific grade or contract requirements and have good keeping quality properties. Buyers can request grading services to assure that products have uniform high quality. Those wishing to use the services must request them, qualify for them, and pay a fee commensurate with the cost of providing them. Two examples of such services are the grade label program for butter and Cheddar cheese, and the acceptance service for volume buyers. Under the grade label program, consumer packages bear an official identification indicating the U.S. grade. As a part of the acceptance service, the user has all deliveries examined by USDA to certify that they meet specifications.

All dairy products offered for sale to the Federal Government under the dairy price support program or sanctioned under such programs as the Dairy Export Incentive Program (DEIP) are inspected by AMS' dairy graders. This assures compliance with purchase announcement specifications and helps assure that the products will maintain their quality. The stocks of Government-owned dairy products are inspected periodically to ensure that quality has not deteriorated during storage.

Dairy product grades and quality approval

Almost all dairy products can be graded, but the service is used most widely for butter, Cheddar cheese, instant nonfat dry milk, and regular nonfat dry milk. Inspectors also grade other cheeses, dry whey, dry buttermilk, and dried and condensed milk.

There are three grades for butter: U.S. Grades AA, A, and B. The ratings are assigned on the basis of flavor, body, and color. The quality of the cream from which the butter is made determines the flavor factor in assigning the grades.

There are four grades for Cheddar cheese: U.S. Grades AA, A, B, and C. As with butter, all grades may be used in the wholesale trade, but only the top grade is used at the retail level. To rate the top grade, the cheese must have a consistently fine Cheddar flavor. In addition, there are grades for Swiss cheese, Emmentaler, Colby, Monterey (Monterey Jack), and Bulk American cheese for manufacturing.

If instant nonfat dry milk meets the standard for quality, it may carry the U.S. Extra grade shield. This means that laboratory tests show that it possesses a sweet and pleasing flavor, a natural color, and satisfactory solubility. USDA inspectors also check the instant milk for other quality factors such as moisture, fat, bacteria, scorched particles, and acidity.

Dry buttermilk and regular nonfat dry milk, which are sold in bulk to producers of ice cream, bakery products, and some processed meat processors, can be graded either U.S. Extra or U.S. Standard. The lower grade, "Standard," may be the result of excess moisture or scorched particles from the drying process or certain other quality factors.

The grades of U.S. Extra and U.S. Standard for dry whole milk are based on quality factors like those for other dry dairy products. Grade requirements for dry whole milk also include a maximum bacteria content. Bacteria limits are designed to ensure a safe product that has good keeping quality.

Dry whey--a coproduct in the making of natural cheese--is tested for flavor, appearance, amount of milkfat, and moisture. It must have a good, sweet taste to earn the U.S. Extra grade. Whey of this top quality is desired by manufacturers because it is used as an ingredient in other foods.

For cottage cheese, processed cheese, cream cheese, or any other dairy product for which no U.S. grade standards have been established, there is a USDA program for official quality approval. Such products may earn the "Quality Approved" rating, which is based on a USDA inspection of the product and the plant where the product was made. The product must be wholesome and measure up to a specific level of quality to earn the rating. The "Quality Approved" shield may be used on retail packages.

Resident grading and quality control

Resident grading and quality control service is available to approved plants. This service is a combination of the plant inspection, laboratory programs, and inspection and grading. It provides for quality checks on sanitation, grading, and certification of the finished product by an inspector stationed at the plant on a full-time basis.

To qualify for USDA resident grading and quality control service, a dairy plant must first be approved under the plant inspection program. The plant must have a USDA-approved laboratory, which the resident inspector uses for chemical and bacteriological testing of raw ingredients and finished products. The inspector also provides a broad range of facilities and equipment evaluations, for example, the sanitation of processing equipment and the pasteurizing temperature of milk or cream prior to its use in manufacturing.

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