Solving the mystery of food labels

When you go to a supermarket to buy food, you're concerned with the cost of each item, but at the same time you want to get the best quality for the price. This should be possible by using the United States Department of Agriculture's food grades, which tell you that the products meet certain standards of quality and give you an impartial guide independent of advertising or brand names.

But the system has become so complicated over the years that most people can't understand it. Instead of one overall system that tells you first, second , and third qualities of foods, there are too many different grading systems for the ordinary shopper to keep straight.

The grading system for meat, for example, is Prime, Choice, and Good. But when it comes to poultry it goes by A, B, and C. Fresh fruits are graded Fancy for top quality, then No. 1 and No. 2 for the next grades. And canned vegetables go back to the ABC system.

A recent survey of consumer use of the food grading systems shows that it is too complicated to be much help. The result is that the department is considering changes to define and label different levels of quality uniformly for the various food items.

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