Prepared with reference to, and selected material from, the United States Food Safety and Inspection Service's web site. Inspired by the terrifying Grade E Meat node.
The inspection and grading of meat and poultry are two separate programs within the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Inspection for wholesomeness is mandatory and is paid for out of tax dollars. Grading for quality is voluntary, and the service is requested and paid for by meat and poultry producers/processors.

Beef

Beef is graded for quality (tenderness, juciness, and flavor), and for yield (amount of usable lean meat on the carcass).

There are eight quality grades, which are based on the amount of marbling, color, and maturity. The quality grades are:

Prime
produced from young, well-fed beef cattle. It has abundant marbling and is generally sold in restaurants and hotels. Prime roasts and steaks are excellent for dry-heat cooking (i.e., roasting, broiling, and grilling).
Choice
high quality, but has less marbling than Prime. Choice roasts and steaks from the loin and rib will be very tender, juicy, and flavorful and are, like Prime, suited to dry-heat cooking. Many of the less tender cuts, such as those from the rump, round, and blade chuck, can also be cooked with dry heat, but be careful not to overcook them. Using a meat thermometer takes the guesswork out of cooking and assures a safe internal temperature: 145 F is medium rare; 160 F, medium; and 170 F, well done.
Select
is very uniform in quality and normally leaner than the higher grades. It is fairly tender, but, because it has less marbling, it may lack some of the juiciness and flavor of the higher grades. Only the tender cuts (loin, rib, sirloin) should be cooked with dry heat. Other cuts should be marinated before cooking or cooked with moisture to obtain maximum tenderness and flavor.
Standard, Commercial
frequently are sold as ungraded or as store brand meat.
Utility, Cutter, and Canner
are seldom, if ever, sold at retail but are used instead to make ground beef and processed products.
Note from the noder: it is apparently legal to sell these grades for human consumption. Urk!

Beef yield grades are numeric and range from 1 to 5, with lower numbers indicating greater ratio of lean to fat.

Veal/Calf

There are five grades for veal:
  1. Prime
  2. Choice
  3. Good
  4. Standard
  5. Utility
The FSIS website notes:
Prime and choice grades are juicier and more flavorful than the lower grades. Because of the young age of the animals, the meat will be a light grayish-pink to light pink, fairly firm and velvety. The bones are small, soft, and quite red. Cuts such as chops can be cooked by the dry-heat method of grilling or broiling.

Lamb

There are five grades for lamb:
  1. Prime
  2. Choice
    Subsequent grades are not normally found at the retail level, and are seldom marked with the grade
  3. Good
  4. Utility
  5. Cull

Pork

Pork is not graded with USDA quality grades as it is generally produced from young animals that have been bred and fed to produce more uniformly tender meat. Appearance is an important guide in buying fresh pork. Look for cuts with a relatively small amount of fat over the outside and with meat that is firm and grayish pink in color. For best flavor and tenderness, meat should have a small amount of marbling.

Poultry

The USDA grades for poultry are A, B, and C.
Grade A is the highest quality and the only grade that is likely to be seen at the retail level. This grade indicates that the poultry products are virtually free from defects such as bruises, discolorations, and feathers. Bone-in products have no broken bones. For whole birds and parts with the skin on, there are no tears in the skin or exposed flesh that could dry out during cooking, and there is a good covering of fat under the skin. Also, whole birds and parts will be fully fleshed and meaty.

Grades B and C poultry are usually used in further-processed products where the poultry meat is cut up, chopped, or ground. If sold at retail, they are usually not grade identified.


I was unable to find reference to Grade E Meat, but perhaps that's not a bad thing. OTOH, perhaps Grade E is simply an alias for Commercial, in which case it's still less terrifying than grades F, G, & H: Utility, Cutter, and Canner.

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