History of Meat Standards

The history of meat standards is closely related to the evolution of food standards, which coincided with the Industrial Revolution. The evolution of the food industry ultimately revealed the need for regulations. Many states had developed regulatory laws, but each state had its own regulations—some states had no laws, adjoining states often had differing laws. With the variety of regulations, variations in labeling and lack of enforcement, it became evident that state regulation simply was not enough to protect the end-user. The federal government then got involved.

In 1905, Upton Sinclair’s novel, The Jungle, created public awareness of the unsanitary conditions and practices of the meatpacking industry. In 1906, both the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Federal Meat Inspection Act were enacted to address the issues brought forth in Sinclair’s novel. This marked the beginning of meat standardization.

Since 1906, there have been numerous federal statutes enacted that were designed to protect public health and consumers.

U.S. federal statutes that affect meat standards

U.S. Statutes Timeline

U.S. Federal Statute Description
Pure Food and Drug Act The first law enacted to protect public health and consumers.
Federal Meat Inspection Act Standards for inspecting all meat processing plants that conduct business across state lines.
Federal Trade Commission Act Started the Federal Trade Commission, a bipartisan body of five members appointed by the president. Authorized to issue cease and desist orders to large corporations to curb unfair trade practices.
Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act Gave authority to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to oversee the safety of food, drugs and cosmetics.
Agriculture Marketing Act Broadened USDA research and extension authority to include the marketing, transportation and distribution of agriculture products.
Fair Packaging and Labeling Act Directed the Federal Trade Commission and the Food and Drug Administration to require that all “consumer commodities” be labeled to disclose net contents, identity of commodity, and name and place of the business of the product’s manufacturer, packer or distributor. Also prevents consumer deception with respect to descriptions of ingredients, packaging and pricing.
Poultry Inspection Act Required Food Safety and Inspection Service to inspect all domesticated birds when slaughtered and processed into products for human consumption.
Nutritional Labeling and Education Act Standardized nutritional labels appearing on retail containers. The act stipulates sampling procedures, testing methods, serving sizes, and label formats.
Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act Highlights the need for all facets of the industry to protect their products and emphasizes that traceability and industry product tracking are essential.

Key government agencies involved in meat standards

Since its inception in 1862, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has been protecting the interests of the American people by monitoring and enforcing standards throughout the agricultural industry. And, when it comes to meat standardization, the Agricultural Marketing Service and the Food Safety and Inspection Service are the key governmental agencies involved.

The Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) was founded in 1939 with the goal of “facilitating efficient, fair marketing of U.S. agricultural products.” Today, the AMS is responsible for monitoring review processes for official grade standards, process standards, Institutional Meat Purchase Specification (IMPS), and marketing claims assigned to agricultural products—including beef, pork, lamb, and veal—and ensuring that consumer products have gone through these review processes by qualified graders and auditors.

In 1981, the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) emerged from the reorganization of the Food Safety and Quality Service (FSQS), which was responsible for performing meat and poultry grading, as well as inspection programs. Today, the FSIS is “responsible for ensuring that the nation's commercial supply of meat, poultry and egg products is safe, wholesome and correctly labeled and packaged.” Efforts by FSIS regarding labeling standards have proven to be imperative when it comes to meat standards.

Voluntary standards

Both regulated and voluntary standards are used to protect consumers and ensure orderly business practices in the meat supply chain. Voluntary standards require a consensus of participants that provide key stakeholders a voice in the standards that affect their businesses. Voluntary standards are typically created and maintained through a separate entity that provides a transparent, democratic platform for decision-making, acquiring consensus and promoting consumer-focused standards.

Meat products go through numerous channels to eventually end up at a consumer retail outlet. With so many entities involved (e.g., producers, processors, packers, suppliers, retailers, foodservice), keeping consumer interests in the forefront is not always an easy task to tackle. Voluntary standards ensure product safety and provide a foundation for business-to-business commerce and traceability. Most importantly, voluntary standards promote the interests of consumers.

The Institutional Meat Purchase Specifications (IMPS) are a series of meat specifications that are maintained by the AMS. While still voluntary, the meat industry has been urged to utilize these specifications for the betterment of the entire industry.

The purpose of IMPS is to facilitate industry trade by providing product trade descriptions and specifications; these specifications are maintained through a voluntary consensus process. Large-volume purchasers such as federal, state and local government agencies, retailers, schools, restaurants, hotels, and other foodservice users reference IMPS for obtaining meat products as it provides a standard description for meat primals, wholesale cuts, subprimals, and portion cuts.

For more information regarding the Institutional Meat Purchase Specifications (IMPS), click here.

Regulations have been a key driver in the need for standardization in the meat industry. Historically, requirements for meat labeling have enforced the need for a standardization system. In the late 1950s, consumers were starting to place more value on time and time spent at the service meat counter. The meat industry started migrating from the service meat counter to a self-service meat case. At that time, there were no standards for cut names and consumers were confused.

In 1973, upon recommendations of the Industry-Wide Cooperative Meat Identification Standards Committee (ICMISC), the Uniform Retail Meat Identity Standards (URMIS) system was established to implement standardization of meat cuts and end consumer confusion. Over the years, URMIS has become the standard used in the meat industry to identify and label meat cuts.

Since 1973 there have been a number of updates to URMIS. The updates have supported industry advances in technology, cost-reduction strategies, better product mix management, advances in consumer marketing programs, and improved food safety by tracking and tracing products more effectively. Initially, the URMIS system was an all-inclusive system that covered everything from the carcass to processed and variety meats. The URMIS system, in its most up-to-date format, now includes subprimals and retail cuts and excludes regulated meat items (i.e., smoked, cured, ground, and sausage products).

Since meat standards are industry-driven, cost benefits typically drive implementation. This means that there must be a monetary benefit for each entity to get involved in the process of adhering to voluntary standards. The URMIS system is a voluntary meat standards system that was developed not only to end consumer confusion but to financially benefit the meat industry as well.

For more information regarding the Uniform Retail Meat Identity Standards (URMIS) and the latest update information, click here.

Tracking and tracing meat products
The events of September 11, 2001 reinforced the need to enhance the security of the United States. The Bioterrorism Act was signed into law June 12, 2002. This legislation not only requires the food/meat industry to be in accordance with this law, but it highlights the greater need for all facets of the industry to protect their products and emphasizes that traceability and industry product tracking are essential.

Participating in the world marketplace offers many opportunities for the United States meat supply chain. Exporting U.S. meat products has a positive impact on all participants in the supply chain; the U.S. economy can benefit from importing products from global trading partners as well. For decades, U.S. retailers have utilized the Universal Product Code (U.P.C.) scan bar technology for identifying, scanning and tracking products. Over time, the needs of the industry have outgrown the capabilities of the system. Today we are faced with new challenges with food safety, an increase in branding and the overall need for more information. Utilizing global data standards in the U.S. domestic supply chain will make a significant improvement over the current standards and enhance traceability capabilities as well.

To trade products globally, a data standard and a common language is needed to keep the trading partners on a "level playing field." For this reason, global standards are essential to the successful future of the meat industry. To learn more about global standards benefits, click here.


Meat standards have evolved through the years—from state-regulated to federally regulated. While many of the standards are mandated today, many standards still remain voluntary. Those voluntary standards remain beneficial to the industry as well as to the consumer, and future implementation of voluntary standards is imperative. The once local issues for the meat industry are now becoming global issues and standards are key to the economical and profitable future of the entire industry.