[Federal Register Volume 82, Number 203 (Monday, October 23, 2017)]
[Pages 48971-48975]
From the Federal Register Online via the Government Publishing Office [www.gpo.gov]
[FR Doc No: 2017-22934]

                                                Federal Register

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appearing in this section.


Federal Register / Vol. 82, No. 203 / Monday, October 23, 2017 / 

[[Page 48971]]


Agricultural Marketing Service

[Docket No. AMS-LPS-17-0046]

United States Standards for Grades of Pork Carcasses

AGENCY: Agricultural Marketing Service, USDA.

ACTION: Notice, request for comments.


SUMMARY: The U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Agricultural 
Marketing Service (AMS) is seeking public comment on revisions to the 
United States Standards for Grades of Pork Carcasses (pork standards). 
The last revision to the pork standards occurred in 1985 and the 
standards no longer accurately reflect value differences in today's 
pork products. Modern pork production is characterized by products with 
improved color and higher marbling content, two factors that have been 
consistently identified by researchers as the main components affecting 
pork eating quality.

DATES: Submit comments on or before December 22, 2017.

ADDRESSES: Interested persons are invited to submit comments 
electronically at https://www.regulations.gov. Written comments should 
be sent to: Pork Carcass Revisions, Standardization Branch, Quality 
Assessment Division; Livestock Poultry and Seed Program, AMS, USDA; 
1400 Independence Ave. SW., Room 3932-S, STOP 0258; Washington, DC 
20250-0258. Comments may also be emailed to 
[email protected]. All comments should reference docket 
number AMS-LPS-17-0046, the date of submission, and the page number of 
this issue of the Federal Register. All comments received will be 
posted without change, including any personal information provided, and 
will be made available for public inspection at the above physical 
address during regular business hours.

FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT: Bucky Gwartney, International 
Marketing Specialist, Standardization Branch, QAD, LPS, AMS, USDA; 1400 
Independence Avenue SW., Room 3932-S, STOP 0258; Washington, DC 20250-
0258; phone (202) 720-1424; or via email at 
[email protected].

SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION: Section 203(c) of the Agricultural Marketing 
Act of 1946, as amended, directs and authorizes the Secretary of 
Agriculture ``to develop and improve standards of quality, condition, 
quantity, grade, and packaging and recommend and demonstrate such 
standards in order to encourage uniformity and consistency in 
commercial practices'' (7 U.S.C. 1622(c)). AMS is committed to carrying 
out this authority in a manner that facilitates the marketing of 
agricultural commodities. While the pork standards do not appear in the 
Code of Federal Regulations, they--along with other official 
standards--are maintained by USDA at https://www.ams.usda.gov/grades-standards. Copies of official standards are also available upon 
request. To propose changes to the pork standards, AMS utilizes the 
procedures it published in the August 13, 1997, Federal Register (62 FR 
43439), which in 7 CFR part 36.


    Official USDA grade standards and associated voluntary, fee-for-
service grading programs are authorized under the Agricultural 
Marketing Act of 1946, as amended (7 U.S.C. 1621 et seq.). The primary 
purpose of USDA grade standards, including the pork standards, is to 
divide the population of a commodity into uniform groups (of similar 
quality, yield, value, etc.) to facilitate marketing. In concert, the 
Federal voluntary, fee-for-service grading programs are designed to 
provide an independent, objective determination as to whether a given 
product is in conformance with the applicable USDA grade standard. USDA 
quality grades provide a simple, effective means of describing product 
that is easily understood by both buyers and sellers. No voluntary USDA 
grading program currently exists for pork carcasses or parts.
    USDA recognizes that the pork standards must be relevant to be of 
value to stakeholders and, therefore, recommendations for changes in 
the standards may be initiated by USDA or by interested parties at any 
time to achieve that goal. The pork standards were first developed in 
the early 1930s, with revisions over the years to reflect improvements 
made in the industry and changes in the marketplace. The current pork 
standards were last updated in 1985 and are based on a combination of 
muscle and fat thickness (including belly) that is then formulated into 
an expected percent yield. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the pork 
industry reacted to growing consumer demand for increased leanness of 
pork cuts, investing in changes to meet this demand primarily by means 
of improved genetics and swine diet formulations. By the early 2000s, 
the pork industry had become so proficient at producing consistently 
lean pork that additional leanness in pork would begin to degrade other 
consumer desires related to pork quality.
    In contrast to decades past, modern consumers have shifted away 
from prioritizing leanness as the primary attribute in selecting pork 
for purchase. Instead, today's consumers seek high quality marbling 
(fat streaking within the cut of meat) for superior taste. In addition, 
consumers are increasingly demanding consistency in pork products in 
terms of other quality attributes, in particular in color of the lean.

Pork Quality Initiative

    Standards for grades enable buyers to obtain product that meets 
their individual needs, such as a restaurant choosing the highest 
quality pork to provide its customers a very consistent level of 
palatability. At the same time, standards for grades are important in 
transmitting information to producers to help ensure informed decisions 
are made. For example, the market preference and price paid for a 
particular grade of pork could be communicated to producers so they can 
adjust their production accordingly. In such a case, if the price 
premium being paid for a high grade of pork merits producers making the 
investments required in genetics and feeding to produce more of that 
grade, such

[[Page 48972]]

marketing decisions can be made with justification.
    The underlying interest in a potential pork quality grading system 
is not new to the industry. Many studies have measured pork populations 
and measured their innate quality characteristics. A study by Cannon 
et. al., 1996,\1\ showed that up to 10 percent of the carcasses 
evaluated in a nationwide audit had pale, soft, and exudative (PSE) 
characteristics, resulting in significant potential losses for the pork 
chain. In the 2002-2003 Benchmarking Value in the Pork Supply Chain 
project, Meisinger, 2003,\2\ noted, ``Industry must develop clear 
economic signals for easily and objectively measuring `quality' along 
the production chain to facilitate coordinated focus on generating pork 
to meet domestic and global, seasonal and geographical, consumer 
demands for fresh, enhanced, processed, consumer-friendly, value-added, 
and ready-to-eat products.'' In 1998, the National Pork Producers 
Council \3\ published color and marbling guidelines for pork products. 
According to these guidelines, a quality pork product with good eating 
quality should be in the color range of 3 to 5 (the entire range is 1-
6) and have a marbling range of 2 to 4 (the entire range is 1-10). 
Recently, the National Pork Board updated those goals and stated that 
by 2020, the percentage of pork loin chops scoring below a color score 
of 3 would be reduced by 10 percentage points (from 55 to 45 percent), 
as compared with the 2012 retail study. The pork industry and the 
academic community have long used several parameters to measure quality 
characteristics, including color and marbling scores, pH, tenderness, 
and drip loss, with the intent of ultimately improving these 
characteristics over time. More recent attention has focused on the use 
of color and marbling, in combination, to segregate pork into like 
quality groupings that would deliver a more consistent, palatable 

    \1\ Cannon, J.E., J.B. Morgan, F.K. McKeith, G.C. Smith, S. 
Sonka, J. Heavner and D.L. Meeker. 1996. Pork chain quality audit 
survey: Quantification of pork quality characteristics. J. Muscle 
Foods 7, 29-44.
    \2\ Meisinger, D.J. 2003. The national pork quality benchmarking 
study. Proceedings abstracts of the 56th American Meat Science 
Association Reciprocal Meat Conference. Columbia, MO.
    \3\ National Pork Producers Council Pork Quality Solutions Team. 
1998. Pork Quality Targets. In Pork Facts. #04366--10/98. NPPC. Des 
Moines, IA.

Evolution of the Pork Standards

    Tentative standards for grades of pork carcasses and fresh pork 
cuts were issued by USDA in 1931 and slightly revised in 1933. New 
standards for grades of barrow and gilt carcasses were proposed by USDA 
in 1949. These standards represented the first application of objective 
measurements as guides to grades for pork carcasses. Slight revisions 
were made in the proposed standards prior to their adoption as the 
Official United Standards for Grades of Barrow and Gilt Carcasses, 
effective September 12, 1952.
    The official standards were amended in July 1955, by changing the 
grade designations Choice No. 1, Choice No. 2, and Choice No. 3, to 
U.S. No. 1, U.S. No. 2, and U.S. No. 3, respectively. In addition, the 
backfat specifications were reworded slightly to reflect the reduced 
fat thickness requirements and to allow more uniform interpretation of 
the standards.
    On April 1, 1968, the official standards were again revised to 
reflect the improvements made since 1955 in pork carcasses. The minimum 
backfat thickness requirement for the U.S. No. 1 grade was eliminated 
and a new U.S. No. 1 grade was established to properly identify the 
superior pork carcasses then being produced. The former No. 1, No. 2, 
and No. 3 grades were renamed No. 2, No. 3, and No. 4, respectively. 
The former Medium and Cull grades were combined and renamed U.S. 
Utility. Also, the maximum allowable adjustment for variations-from-
normal fat distribution and muscling was changed from one-half to one 
full grade to more adequately reflect the effect of these factors on 
yields of cuts.
    In addition, the text of the ``Application of Standards'' section 
was reworded to more clearly define the grade factors and clarify their 
use in determining the grade. On January 14, 1985, the barrow and gilt 
carcass grade standards were once again updated to reflect improvements 
in pork carcasses and changes in the pork slaughter industry since 
1968.\4\ A 1980 grade survey found that over 70 percent of the pork 
carcasses being produced were in the U.S. No. 1 grade, indicating a 
large amount of variation in yield that was not being accounted for by 
the grades. The changes simplified the standards by basing the grade on 
the backfat thickness over the last rib with a single adjustment for 
muscling. In addition, the grade lines were tightened to more 
adequately sort the pork carcasses being produced among several grades. 
Some minor changes in the wording of the quality requirements were also 

    \4\ USDA, 1985. Official United States standards for grades of 
pork carcasses. Agricultural Marketing Service, United States Dept. 
Agric., Washington, DC.

    Between 1985 and today, the pork industry and the pork carcasses 
and products that it produces have undergone significant change. The 
pork industry reacted to the consumer demand for leaner pork by making 
changes in genetics and nutrition. Unfortunately, during that period 
when production strategies focused on producing leaner pork, marbling 
and color became less important. However, research indicates that 
today's consumers are interested in a more consistent pork product with 
a greater focus on marbling and the color of the products. The pork 
industry is working to meet this demand, again by making changes within 
the genetic and nutrition systems.
    The use of the current USDA pork grade standards in an official 
capacity has been non-existent since the mid-1970s, and the ability to 
differentiate pork into quality groupings and values has been a 
critical missing link. In the absence of a meaningful USDA pork grade 
standard, pork packers and processors have taken the initiative to sort 
the darker colored, higher-marbling pork for many export markets where 
demand is extremely high and associated price premiums exist. They also 
have developed branded programs with selection criteria that use both 
color and marbling to identify premium pork products. These programs 
generally seek higher color scores (4-5) and marbling scores (3-5).

Today's Quality Attributes

    The U.S. is the second largest pork producing country in the world. 
Its production exceeds domestic consumption and, therefore, products 
need to be exported. Exports have continued to increase, with many 
markets demanding high quality pork that has certain color and marbling 
characteristics. These quality characteristics have been routinely used 
in processing plants to sort the higher quality pork for both export 
and for foodservice establishments that are demanding these traits. A 
revision to the grade standards is needed that reflects a new 
population of pork products that have better color and a higher 
marbling content, and is able to differentiate products into quality 
categories that can fill the demand in many different market segments. 
These two factors have been consistently identified by numerous 
researchers as the components affecting pork eating quality, as 
verified through checkoff-funded research.

[[Page 48973]]

    In one consumer study (Pork Quality Insights, 2014 \5\) that looked 
at purchase criteria for fresh pork, the data showed that ``quality and 
freshness'' and color were key factors in fresh pork purchases. In 
general, consumers related a darker color to a higher quality product. 
Another study (Lusk et al., 2016 \6\) looked at how consumers value 
pork chop quality information. It found that the majority of the 
consumers used chop color to assess quality and said that color is more 
important than marbling. However, 30 to 40 percent of consumers 
misperceived lighter, lower quality pork products to be of higher 
quality than they actually were. Furthermore, when consumers evaluated 
pork chop products based on quality levels, the products bearing 
quality grades using Prime, Choice, and Select tended to generate 
higher sales and, therefore, more revenue for the chop producers. 
However, when presented with lighter-colored, lower quality pork chop 
products, 20 to 30 percent of consumers still preferred these products 
based on their lighter color, even when these products conspicuously 
bore a USDA quality label indicating that they were lower quality. 
Therefore, color may be more influential than a grade level in some 
consumer decision making, which indicates that there are key 
opportunities within a revised pork quality standard to highlight the 
importance of color.

    \5\ Pork Insights. 2014. Prepared for the National Pork Board.
    \6\ Lusk, J., G. Tonsor, T. Schroeder and D. Hayes. 2016. 
Consumer Valuation of Pork Chop Quality Information. Prepared for 
the National Pork Board. This study also found that taste was the 
most important attribute for consumers when purchasing chops.

    Recent research by Newman et al., 2015,\7\ as part of a National 
Retail Benchmarking audit, indicated that the quality of loin chops at 
retail was inconsistent and needed improvement. The range in color 
score for the retail chops was 1 to 6 with an average of slightly above 
3. In addition, marbling scores also ranged from 1 to 6 with 2.5 as an 
average. An analysis of the data after they were sorted into various 
color and marbling combinations resulted in the following break points: 
HIGH--Color 4-5, Marbling [gteqt]4; MEDIUM--Color 3, Marbling [gteqt]3; 
LOW--Color 2, Marbling [gteqt]2. These would result in the following 
percentages of the retail population: 2.1, 45.1, and 22, respectively. 
The pork population studied by Moeller, 2008,\8\ also showed a range 
and average for color and marbling scores similar to that found in the 
retail benchmarking study. There is evidence that the color and 
marbling score averages and the percentages in the total population 
would be higher without the exclusion of products being sorted for 
quality branded programs and sold at foodservice establishments or 
being exported from this data set.

    \7\ Newman, D. 2015. National pork retail benchmarking study. 
National Pork Board Research abstract: #11-163.
    \8\ Moeller, S.J., R. Miller and H. Zerby. 2008. Effects of pork 
quality and cooked temperature on consumer and trained sensory 
perception of eating quality in no-enhanced and enhanced pork loins. 
National Pork Board Research abstract: #06-139 and #07-005.

    A study by Tonsor et al., 2013,\9\ looked at the important criteria 
needed for a viable, trusted pork quality grading system. The research 
indicates that a quality grading system would need to focus on product 
attributes that can be measured accurately and objectively at the speed 
of commerce (e.g., plant line speeds), facilitate product sorting by 
grade, relate directly to those product characteristics valued by 
buyers and consumers, and be trusted by potential users. In addition, a 
well-functioning pork quality grade system would provide important 
economic signals to the industry and encourage the production of higher 
quality pork products. These improvements would also lead to increased 
demand for pork, both domestically and internationally.

    \9\ Tonsor, G.T., and T.C. Schroeder. 2013. ``Economic Needs 
Assessment: Pork Quality Grading System.'' Available at: http://www.agmanager.info/ag-policy/livestock-policy/economicneeds-assessment-pork-quality-grading-system.

    A working example of these criteria is the USDA beef quality 
grading system. The beef quality grade standards are widely adopted by 
the beef industry and are globally recognized. The USDA Prime and 
Choice beef grades are widely recognized by consumers, both 
domestically and abroad, as premium products that demand a higher value 
and also deliver a consistent eating experience. These grade groupings 
also result in an economic signal that is sent up and down the beef 
products chain, affecting the way producers implement genetic and 
nutritional changes. In addition, the adoption of instrument grading 
technologies has allowed the industry and USDA graders to stay in tune 
with plant line speeds and demands for consistent grade application.
    The accurate measurement of color and marbling scores is important 
for a pork quality grading system. Published color and marbling 
scorecards and visual aids have been a primary subjective method for 
putting pork quality into categories, whether for research trials or at 
processing plants. Color evaluation has been performed using one of 
many objective color analyses. There has also been recent research on 
the ability to objectively measure pork quality through 
instrumentation. In a large modern pork processing facility, some form 
of instrumentation would be needed for pork quality evaluation at 
current line speeds.
    The National Pork Board has indicated it is in the process of 
revising the current pork color and marbling score cards.\10\ These 
cards will most likely contain additional information regarding the 
color parameters for each color range and would still be based on a 
10th rib cross-section of the longissimus dorsi. The challenge with 
having this measurement location is that most processing facilities do 
not make that cross-section cut, and therefore it cannot be measured. 
Homm, et al., 2006,\11\ evaluated the influence of chop location on 
subsequent color and marbling scores. They found that color and 
marbling were consistent with the central portions of the loin. There 
was more variability in the anterior and posterior portions, with 
anterior chops being generally darker, posterior chops generally 
lighter, and both ends having more marbling than centrally located 
chops. These results indicated that the location being measured for 
color and marbling is important and could be problematic when a 10th 
rib cross-section is not available. Current research being done with 
various instrumental measurements is showing promise in measuring lean 
color and marbling along the ventral portion of the loin where the back 
ribs have been removed, which could become a reliable indicator for 
color and marbling levels.

    \10\ National Pork Producers Council (NPPC). 1999. Official 
color and marbling standards. NPPC, Des Moines, IA.
    \11\ Homm, J.W., A.T. Waylan, J.A. Unruh, and R.C. Johnson. 
2006. Influence of chop location within a loin on boneless pork 
longissimus quality. J. Muscle Foods 17, 221-236.

Proposed Changes to the Pork Standards

    Printed below beginning with section 54.131 is the proposed text 
for a revised pork standard. While the preamble describing the history 
of the standards is not reprinted here, the body of the actual proposed 
standard (sections 54.131 through 54.135) is shown in its entirety. 
Should any updates to the pork standard occur, the preamble will be 
updated accordingly. The current standard, including the preamble, can 
be viewed at https://www.ams.usda.gov/

[[Page 48974]]

    As discussed, the proposed revised standard identifies marbling and 
color as the primary considerations for quality designations, instead 
of lean/fat and yield as exists in the current standard. Further, the 
proposed revised standard excludes the provision for grading of sow 
carcasses, maintaining the official standards for barrows and gilts 

Sec.  54.131 Scope

    The standards for grades of pork are written primarily in terms of 
carcasses. However, they also are applicable to the grading of sides 
and primal cuts, such as the ham, loin, or shoulder. To simplify the 
phrasing of the standards, the words ``carcass'' and ``carcasses'' are 
used also to mean ``side'' or ``sides.''

Sec.  54.132 Bases for Pork Carcass Standards

    The official standards for pork carcass grades provide for 
segregation according to (a) class, as determined by the apparent sex 
condition of the animal at the time of slaughter, and (b) grade, which 
reflects the quality of lean in the carcass. A quality grade applied to 
a carcass will be associated with all cuts for that carcass, as long as 
the associated cuts are traceable through fabrication and labeling.

Sec.  54.133 Pork Carcass Classes

    The five classes of pork carcasses, comparable to the same five 
classes of slaughter hogs, are: barrow, gilt, sow, stag, and boar. The 
official pork quality standards provide for the grading of barrow and 
gilt carcasses; grades are not provided for sow, stag, or boar 
    (a) Barrow. A barrow is a male swine castrated when young and 
before development of the secondary physical characteristics of a boar.
    (b) Gilt. A gilt is a young female swine that has not produced 
young and has not reached an advanced stage of pregnancy.
    (c) Sow. A sow is a mature female swine that usually shows evidence 
of having reproduced or having reached an advanced stage of pregnancy.
    (d) Boar. A boar is an uncastrated male swine.
    (e) Stag. A stag is a male swine castrated after development or 
beginning of development of the secondary physical characteristics of a 
boar. Typical stags are somewhat coarse and lack balance--the head and 
shoulders are more fully developed than the hindquarter parts, bones 
and joints are large, the skin is thick and rough, and the hair is 

Sec.  54.134 Application of Standards for Grades of Barrow and Gilt 

    (a) Grades for barrow and gilt carcasses are based on two general 
quality characteristics (1) the color of the exposed lean and (2) the 
amount of marbling associated with the lean.
    (b) There are three general levels of quality recognized: (1) 
Prime, Choice, and Select. The quality (color and marbling) of the lean 
is best evaluated by a direct observation of its characteristics in the 
cut surface of the longissimus dorsi. Quality of the lean is described 
in terms of characteristics of the longissimus dorsi, at either the 
10th rib cross-section or other cross-sections within the loin that 
expose a surface of the longissimus dorsi for evaluation, or the 
exposed lean on the ventral side of the boneless loin after removal of 
the back ribs. The surface area of the longissimus dorsi should be at 
least 4 square inches to be acceptable for evaluating color and 
marbling characteristics.
    (c) USDA uses photographs and other objective aids or devices 
designated by the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) in the correct 
interpretation and application of the standards.\12\ Official pork 
color and marbling standards are maintained by the National Pork Board 
and will be used as official references for the USDA pork quality 
grades. Objective aids can also include predictive instrumentation 
technologies that evaluate color and/or marbling scores and meet 
thresholds for accuracy and precision of the predictions.

    \12\ Information concerning such devices and their use may be 
obtained from AMS' Livestock, Poultry, and Seed Program.''

    (d) To determine the grade of a carcass, the longissimus dorsi must 
be present at a minimum of 4 square inches and exposed for subjective 
and/or objective evaluation to allow a visual or instrumental 
assessment of color and marbling levels. This exposure can be done 
multiple ways:
    (1) Exposing a cross-section of the longissimus dorsi at the 10th 
rib, or other location between approximately the 4th rib, posterior to 
the scapula (blade bone), and the longissimus dorsi cross-section 
anterior to the ilium (hip bone), or
    (2) Exposing the longissimus dorsi on the ventral side of the 
boneless loin after removal of the back ribs.

Carcasses not presented in one of these manners are not eligible for 
quality grading.
    For barrow and gilt carcasses, the cut surface of the longissimus 
dorsi shall be, at a minimum, slightly firm to be assessed for color 
and marbling levels. Lean firmness is essential for both the eating 
experience and in the fabrication process. Barrow and gilt carcasses 
meeting the minimum lean firmness are eligible to be graded on color 
and marbling levels. Barrow and gilt carcasses having less than 
slightly firm lean are not eligible for pork quality grading.
    For barrow and gilt carcasses, quality of the lean is evaluated by 
considering its color and marbling in a cut longissimus dorsi surface. 
Barrow and gilt carcasses will be assessed for their color and marbling 
levels based on the published standards by the National Pork Board. The 
color levels are evaluated on a scale from one to six and the marbling 
levels are evaluated on a scale of one to ten.
    The firmness requirement of slightly firm is the same for all 
grades and a minimum requirement for application of a grade, regardless 
of the extent to which marbling may exceed the minimum of a grade.

Sec.  54.135 Specifications for Official United States Standards for 
Grades of Barrow and Gilt Carcasses

    (a) The quality grade of a barrow or gilt carcass is determined on 
the basis of the following: lean color score and lean marbling score.
    The relationship between color, marbling, and quality grade is 
shown in Table 1.

    \13\ Carcasses with less than slightly firm lean are not 
eligible for quality grading.

                    Table 1--Pork Carcass Quality Grade Based on Lean Color and Marbling \13\
                                             Lean color
              Quality grade                     score                       Lean marbling score
USDA Prime...............................             4-5  Greater than or equal to 4.
USDA Choice..............................               3  Greater than or equal to 2.

[[Page 48975]]

USDA Select..............................               2  Greater than or equal to 2.

    (b) The following descriptions provide a guide to the 
characteristics of barrow and gilt carcasses in each grade.
    (1) USDA Prime--Barrow and gilt carcasses in this grade have at 
least a slightly firm lean, a color score of 4 or 5, and a marbling 
score of 4 or greater.
    (2) USDA Choice--Barrow and gilt carcasses in this grade have at 
least a slightly firm lean, a color score of 3, and a marbling score of 
2 or greater.
    (3) USDA Select--Barrow and gilt carcasses in this grade have at 
least a slightly firm lean, a color score of 2, and a marbling score of 
2 or greater.

Request for Comments

    AMS is soliciting comments from stakeholders about potential 
changes to the U.S. Standards for Grades of Pork Carcasses. This could 
also include any current and/or on-going research or industry practice 
that has relevance to this standard. AMS also invites comments about 
how those changes would be implemented in a voluntary pork grading 

    Dated: October 18, 2017.
Bruce Summers,
Acting Administrator, Agricultural Marketing Service.
[FR Doc. 2017-22934 Filed 10-20-17; 8:45 am]