It's hard to say how long a legend about 'Grade D but edible' meat has been with us, but some of our readers have reported hearing it about Taco Bell, prisons, and school cafeterias as far back as 1980:
[Collected on the Internet, 1996]
Here at Indiana University there is a story that has been going around for a long time, that certainly qualifies as a FOAF story.
It typically involves someone who was a student worker in the cafeteria system, who says that they saw a recently delivered crate of beef labelled: "Grade D Beef: Fit for human consumption."
[Collected on the Internet, 1999]
Supposedly found on a box of sausages that my university was using..."Grade D, but edible".
[Collected on the Internet, 2003]
I've heard from several people that Taco Bell uses Grade D Edible meat in their foods (i.e. the skins, testicles, penises, et cetera ground up).
[Collected on the Internet, 2003]
I heard from a friend that Taco Bell meat is grade F, while most dog foods are grade D (a better grade).
Aside from its two most common expressions (college cafeterias and fast food providers such as Taco Bell), this legend of Grade D meat has also been told of food served in grade school lunchrooms, children's summer camps, and prisons. In every instance, someone swears to have seen the telltale boxes of meat being unloaded from trucks which have arrived to provision the kitchens, or to have spied these packages in the kitchens themselves. Usually the crates are said to have been labeled "Grade D But Edible," but we've also heard "Grade D — Edible," "Grade F — Edible," "Grade D Beef: Fit for human consumption," and (our particular favorite) "Grade D — Unfit For Human Consumption — Suitable For Prisoners and Students." (No one ever manages to produce a photograph of such a label as confirmatory evidence, however.)
This tale is naught but lore. In the U.S., meat is not graded on a scale represented by letters, so one would never see crates of meat labeled Grade D (or any other letter grade).
In order to protect the public from food borne illnesses, meat products (a group which includes beef, pork, lamb, and veal) sold in the U.S. are inspected by the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), to ensure that they meet U.S. food safety standards for safety, wholesomeness, and accuracy in labeling in accordance with the Federal Meat Inspection Act (FMIA). However, the FSIS does not "grade" meat as part of the standard inspection process: inspection is strictly a pass/fail system, and meat products either pass or are rejected as unfit. There is no such thing as "Grade D but edible" or "pet food only" grades of meat.
If a meat producer wishes, he can have his products graded by a USDA grader, who will assign it to one of eight categories: Prime, Choice, Select, Standard, Commercial, Utility, Cutter, and Canner. According to the USDA:
USDA Prime, Choice, Select, and Standard grades come from younger beef. The highest grade, USDA Prime, is used mostly by hotels and restaurants, but a small amount is sold at retail markets. The grade most widely sold is USDA Choice.
Standard and Commercial grade beef frequently is sold as ungraded or as "brand name" meat.
The three lower grades — USDA Utility, Cutter, and Canner — are seldom, if ever, sold in stores but are used instead to make ground beef and other meat items such as frankfurters.
This grading process is optional, however, and even meat assigned to the lowest grades is perfectly edible. Obviously some cuts and grades of meat are more flavorful or nutritious — and therefore more appealing (and more expensive) to consumers — but every meat product that passes USDA inspection has been certified as fit for human consumption. Any meat that does not pass the basic USDA inspection process is rejected; it is not designated as a "low grade but edible" or "pet food only" product.
Moreover, the notion of meat being labeled "Grade D but edible" is contrary to the whole concept of grading. "Grade D but edible" would imply that some Grade D meat was fit for human consumption and some wasn't — but what would be the point of creating a grade classification for food that didn't serve the primary function of distinguishing edible from inedible product?
If there were truly two types of low-grade (i.e., "Grade D") meat, the type not fit for human consumption would be designated with a distinctly different rating (such as "Grade F") to avoid any possibility of confusion between the two. Like the note left behind by a dishonest hit-and-run motorist in another familiar legend, the "Grade D but edible" label is a plot point, an invented detail necessary for the effective telling of a story, and not something that would be encountered in real life.
Undoubtedly the wellspring of this legend is the prevalence of cartons of food products labeled "For Institutional Use Only" commonly found at facilities that prepare large numbers of meals (e.g., restaurants, hospitals, schools, prisons, military bases), a designation which has wrongly been interpreted to mean that the products contained within those cartons are sub-standard. The "For Institutional Use Only" designation has nothing to do with quality, however; it's an indicator that the contents of the carton have been packaged and sold in bulk for institutional use and are therefore exempt from federal labeling requirements which would otherwise apply if those contents were sold individually to household consumers. (For example, food products sold for institutional use may not be required to bear nutrition information on each package, as they would be if they were vended on grocery store shelves.)
Central to this legend are two themes: prepared dishes served by institutions or cut-rate fast food outlets don't taste as good as those served at home, and youthfulness, educational ambitions, failed criminality, or a determination to dine on the cheap all leave one at the mercy of the culinarily unscrupulous. A certain level of unease is always associated with entrusting the preparation of what we eat to strangers, as evidenced by the many food contamination legends in circulation, but generally this anxiety does little more than percolate quietly in the background as long as the food we're served is reasonably tasty and doesn't appear to have been tampered with. However, when taste goes out the window or when something looks amiss, we start asking ourselves what's really going on in that kitchen, often turning to fanciful explanations to explain the shortfall between our expectations and what we were served. Because of this, institutional or restaurant offerings which don't taste as good as home cooking are attributed to their having been made from substandard ingredients rather than their being the product of mass production.
Likewise, when a fast food outlet is able to offer menu items for less than we think they should be able to sell them for, we look for explanations that go beyond the power of mass purchasing; namely, that they must be cutting corners in the quality of ingredients. Because of Taco Bell's endearingly low prices, the "Grade D but edible" legend is attached to that fast food chain more than to any other (although it has also been pointed at McDonald's and Subway).
Also, those who are by circumstance forced to rely upon institutional food for sustenance (e.g., prisoners and college students) delight in gallows humor about the awfulness of the dining experience. In such settings, jokes about "mystery meat" abound. A certain "tough guy" pride comes from being part of a group that has survived unpleasant or arduous events, with membership of such corps worn as a badge of honor and proof of that person's value. The "Grade D but edible" legend is especially beloved of collegians because it fits so well with the heroic image of the brave little student struggling against overwhelming forces (e.g., sadistic professors, a workload that would choke a horse, dorms with all the ambiance of prisons, and food that would send a tough guy crying to his momma). Our College section is replete with tales of students beset by the harshness of collegiate life, because such stories are an expression of how those living away from home in pursuit of a college education want to see themselves. This is a daunting, difficult time in their lives, so they delight in framing their struggle as a courageous larger-than-life battle against the elements, in which only the most heroic succeed.