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Meat & Poultry


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Meat & Poultry: A Buyer's Guide


Grading, Inspecting, Purchasing

According to Federal Law, the USDA inspectors check poultry, and poultry products to ensure that is has been processed in an environment that meets safety and sanitation standards. Look for the inspected by the USDA stamp on the packaging to ensure you are buying a safe product.

After inspection, poultry is then graded. The USDA has a grading system that the customer can use as a tool for indicating the overall quality of the poultry. These grades are A, B, & C. When considering grade, the USDA takes the following into consideration – lack of body deformity, flesh and fat amounts, how well the feathers were removed, and the overall condition of the bird. Grade A poultry is mostly sold in restaurants and grocery stores and Grades B & C are best suited for processing, frozen packaging, nuggets, etc.

Poultry is available for purchase in many forms. These “Market Forms”, or forms in which poultry can be purchased include: fresh, frozen, IQF, or fully cooked or roasted; rotisserie. In addition to market form, poultry is also classified according to age and gender. The tenderness of a bird will be directly influenced by these 2 factors. The style of the bird is also something to take into consideration upon purchasing. There are many styles – live, killed and dressed, defeathered. Most all chickens come dressed and processed before they hit the shelf. Another style is RTC or ready to cook. This is the package broken down poultry that line the shelves. Breasts, thighs, wings, leg., half chickens, spatchcocked, bone-in or out.

Poultry, in nature, are carnivores. Do not buy chickens that are vegetarian fed. This will drastically affect the taste. Free-Range poultry refers to poultry that roams freely and eats outdoors. This does not mean that the poultry is raised or treated any better, it just means they are raised outdoors. Free-range chickens have a tendency to be more tough as they are allowed run to roam. The USDA DOES NOT REQUIRE any other restriction to “Free-Range” other than the poultry has unlimited access to the outdoors.

CCP for Poultry (CCP= critical control point)

Improper handling and preparation of poultry can be very dangerous to you or your customers. Foodborne Illnesses associated with poultry are Salmonella and Campylobacter. These 2 bacteria can cause significant intestinal problems – and potentially can be fatal.

When handling poultry, avoiding cross-contamination is critical. Prepare poultry away from other raw and cooked foods, and best practice is to use a separate cutting board for raw poultry. Practicing good hygiene and wearing gloves when preparing chicken and frequent hand washing is critical when working with poultry. Make sure poultry reaches the proper internal temperature while cooking for at least 15 seconds to ensure all of the bacteria has been killed during the cooking process.

Classification of Poultry, According to the USDA



Poussin Very young 1 # or less Either

Cornish hen 5-6 weeks 1.5 # or less Either

Broiler/Fryer 9-12 weeks 3.5 # or less Either

Roaster 3-5 months 3.5-5# Either

Capon 5-8 months 6-10# Castrated Male

Stewer Over 10 months 2.5-8# Female


Fryer/roaster Under 16 weeks 4-9# Either

Young turkey 5-7 months 8-22# Either

Yearling Turkey 7-15 months 10-30# Either

Mature/Old Over 15 months 10-30# Either


Broiler/fryer Under 8 weeks 3.5-4# Either

Roaster Under 16 weeks 4-6# Either

Mature Over 6 months 4-6# Either


Young goose Under 6 months 6-12# Either

Mature goose Over 6 months 10-16# Either


Young Guinea 3 months 12 oz – 1.5# Either

Mature Guinea Over 3 months 1-2# Either


Squab 4 weeks 12 oz – 1.5# Either

Pigeon Over 4 weeks 1-2# Either


Grading, Inspecting, Purchasing

Muscle Composition

There are 3 main components in the makeup of a muscle: protein, water and fat. The proportions are the same in most meats.

• 75% water

• 20% protein

• 5% fat

In addition to this makeup of the muscle, muscles also contain vitamins, minerals, and carbs.

  • Water – the actual amount will vary due to shrinkage. This is the moisture loss as a result of oxidation. Occurs naturally during the aging process or storing or occurs as a result of high heat or an extended cooking process.
  • Protein – an essential nutrient that serves as a source of energy.
  • Fat – surrounds the muscle tissue and also is found in the muscle in the form of marbling. Marbling contributes to the juiciness of the meat, making it tender. High heat and long cooking processes can make fat melt differently and can result in tough meat.

The Structure of Meat

Meat products available are comprised of bones, muscle fibers, and connective tissue.

  • Bones – bones are a great indicator of the age of the animal. The redder the bone, the younger the animal. As the animal ages, the bone turns white.
  • Muscle Fibers – fibers or cells that are bundled together that comprise the protein of the muscle. The thickness of these fibers determines the grain and the texture of the meat. Tougher and denser fibers lend themselves better to a long cooking process as these fibers are notoriously more difficult to chew. Softer fibers benefit from quick cooking and are best eaten with less preparation and cooking time.
  • Connective Tissue – covers the muscle fibers, bundles them together, and attaches them to bones. Connective tissue is usually very tough and either needs to be removed, if possible, or needs a cooking process that is suited to that cut. There are 2 types of connective tissue: collagen and elastin.
  1. Collagen – the soft white connective tissue in meat. With slow cooking, it breaks down into water and gelatin.
  2. Elastin – hard, yellowish connective tissue that is more prevalent in older animals. Elastin does not break down during the cooking process, so it needs to be removed, if possible either before or after cooking.

The Aging Process

The aging process is a naturally occurring process where the lactic acid enzymes in the meat tenderize the meat. When an animal is slaughtered, rigor mortis sets in and makes the meat stiff. As this eases, because of the lactic acid enzymes, the meat softens, or ripens. This process takes several days and is done in a climate-controlled environment to prevent spoilage. There are 3 types of the Aging Process: Dry Aging, Vacuum Sealed Aging, Fast Aging.

  1. Dry Aging – this is a 6-week process that involves hanging the meat in a controlled environment to create an excellent and very unique tasting cut of beef. This is a long and expensive process, and shrinkage is a major issue. Up to 20% of weight is lost on some cuts of beef during dry-aging.
  2. Vacuum Aging – This is a clever way to call something aged, but it is essentially meaningless. This is where meat is packaged in a vacuum sealed bag and let age in its own juices for up to 6 weeks. There is a natural lactic acid breakdown and tenderizing process, but it produces no added flavor. Also, vacuum aged meat tends to lose more liquid during the cooking process than dry aged beef.
  3. Fast Aging – A method for aging meat quickly using high temperatures and ultraviolet light.

How Beef is Inspected and Graded

Inspection – the 1906 Meat Inspection Act mandated the examination of all meats that travel across state lines. Inspection does not guarantee quality, just ensures that the animal is from a wholesome farm or processer and is fit for consumption.

USDA/FSIS – the United States Department of Agriculture and the Food Safety and Inspection Service are two government agencies responsible for conducting inspections. The USDA conducts the inspections while the FSIS checks the meats packaging and physical attributes to ensure it is safe for food service operations and grocery services. The FSIS is a sub agency within the USDA.

Grading – A completely voluntary service. Grading measures the yield and the quality of the meat.

Federal Grading – the USDA evaluates the quality of the meat. This process is typically performed within 24 hours of slaughter. The assessment of the meat is based on color, texture, age, firmness, and marbling.

The yield grade range is from 1-5 and lower numbers are indicative of the leanest cuts of meat with the greatest yield, where a 5 would represent meat with the fattest, and lowest yield. The yield range from 1-5 is this:

1- Edible meat at least 52.3%

2- Edible meat 50-52.3%

3- Edible meat is 47.7-50%

4- Edible meat is 45.4-47.7%

5- Edible meat is less than 45.5%

Federal Beef Grading - All eight quality grades from the USDA apply to all beef.


  • Prime - Highest quality, most expensive, abundant marbling, extremely juicy, limited supply
  • Choice - High quality, excellent value, tender and juicy, widely available
  • Select - Acceptable; lean with little marbling, less juicy and tender
  • Standard - Lower quality, lacks marbling
  • Commercial - Low quality, from older animals, lacks tenderness and juiciness
  • Utility, Cutter, Canner - Lowest quality, primarily used in processed foods, canned foods, frozen meals


There are several hundred breeds of pork available in the world. Different breeds of pigs are used for different productions.

Pork comes from young pigs between 6 months and 1 year old. As pork is naturally tender, the aging process is unnecessary. The inspection of pork by the USDA and FSIS is mandatory, but because commercial pork is so consistent, it is not issued a quality grade. Pork is however given a yield grade. The yield grade for pork is between 1-4.

Popular processing of pork includes curing and smoking.

Curing uses sugar, salt, spices, flavorings, and nitrates to preserve the pork. There are numerous ways to cure pork. Dry curing, pickle curing (or brining), injection curing or curing with sugar are popular ways that pork is cured. Smoking is used to enhance the pork with a smoky flavor while also, in some cases cooking the meat.

Sheep and Lamb:

A lamb is a young animal that includes both domesticated and wild sheep. Sheep terminology falls into three categories.

  1. Lamb - is the meat from a sheep that is under 1 year old.
  2. Mutton – the meat from a mature sheep; over 1 year old.
  3. Yearling – a sheep that is between 12-20 months old.

Types of Lamb

The age of the lamb at the time of slaughter determines the label that the lamb meat gets.

  1. Baby lamb – a lamb that is between 6-10 weeks old. A baby lamb has not yet started the weaning process.
  2. Genuine lamb – meat from a lamb that is less than 1 year old.
  3. Spring Lamb – the meat from a lamb that is 3-5 months old. Spring lambs are slaughtered between march and October. Spring lambs are milk-fed.

Imported Lamb vs. Domestic Lamb

Imported lamb primarily comes from New Zealand and dominates the lamb meat market. Imported lambs are generally free-range and have a great mellow flavor. However, the New Zealand lambs are smaller than domestic lamb because domestic lamb is grain-fed, and usually grass finished. Domestic lamb is deeper red in color and have a more pronounced flavor. Demand for domestic lamb is high and is more expensive than New Zealand Lamb.


Since lamb is similar to beef, aging is a process that helps to improve and develop the meat.


The USDA & FSIS have a 5-tiered quality rating system for lamb.

  1. Prime
  2. Choice
  3. Good
  4. Utility
  5. Cull

Prime is going to be the best grade while utility and cull and used for canning and processing. The yield number for lamb is like beef and is 1-5.

Game Meats:

There are two types of game, wild and domestic. Wild game refers to animals and birds that live and grow in their natural environment. Wild game is only accessible to hunters and is unavailable to purchase and is only for personal consumption. Domestic game are animals that are bred and raised in a farm-like atmosphere and are commercially available.

For the most part, game, both wild and domestic, are raised to be more active than domestic animals. Game animals are usually raised in an environment where they can forage for their own food and stick closer to their natural diet, resulting in a meat that is lower in fat, cholesterol, and calories than meats of domesticated animals. Game meats are also high in vitamins and minerals.

There are many factors that come into play when considering the quality of game. These factors include: age, diet, activity, and the season of the slaughter. Diet greatly influences the flavor of the meat. Wild game has a very strong, gamey flavor, where as domesticated game have a more smooth and mild flavor. Older animals have a tougher flesh than younger animals. Increased exercise mean game are allowed more movement and therefore the muscles tend to be tougher and darker, though more lean. Game that is slaughtered in the fall tend to be meatier because they have fed through the spring and summer. The FDA and USDA do not have a quality grading system for game, and inspection of game is voluntary – however health codes require game meat for public consumption comes from an approved source.

Preparation of Game

As discussed above, wild game is generally tougher and more lean than domestic animals and benefit from marinating, barding, or larding, and aging.

  • Marinating – Highly flavored and concentrated mixture of herbs, wine, and spices that are used for flavoring and tenderizing the game meat. This also helps to mitigate the strong game flavor. Marinades are also a way keep moisture on meat during the cooking process to prevent drying out.
  • Barding and Larding –Barding is covering the surface of a muscle or protein with fat. This provides moisture and adds flavor. Larding is stuffing fat under the skin or inside of the meat, and trussing it, so the fat melts during the cooking process and keeps the meat moist.
  • Aging – Hanging game before cooking helps the meat to age and mature. Carbohydrates in the tissue convert to lactic acid, tenderizing the meat while making the flavor of the meat stronger. Hanging times vary depending on the type of game. Hanging game should be done in a refrigerated environment, such as a refrigerator or walk-in cooler.