Making the grade: Government agency inspects commodities to make sure it hits target for U.S. standards

Grading peas may not seem like the most exciting kind of work, but that's just the way Ed Stallman of the Federal Grain Inspection Service likes it. "Exciting is overrated," he says. He has been working at the Grand Forks, N.D., office for about ...

Grading peas may not seem like the most exciting kind of work, but that's just the way Ed Stallman of the Federal Grain Inspection Service likes it.

"Exciting is overrated," he says.

He has been working at the Grand Forks, N.D., office for about 20 years, and in that time, has come

to appreciate having everything on a nice, even keel.

Operated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Grain Inspection, Packer and Stockyards Administration, the agency provides farmers, processors, exporters and foreign buyers with grading information that consistently describes the quality of grains and other commodities.


In the domestic market, grain officially is graded by agencies that are licensed through the inspection service. The edible beans, dry peas and lentils are officially graded by the inspection service. Each is done according to the "U.S. Standards for Grain," a set of documents that describe in detail what makes the difference between a Grade 1, 2 or 3 grain shipment.

"It's standardized so that what we're doing here, they're doing it exactly the same way anyplace else," Stallman says. "If everybody's using the same equipment and the same procedures, hopefully everybody's getting the same answers."

Open to all

The Federal Grain Inspection Service was created in 1976 by Congress to manage the national grain inspection system. The purpose for creating a federalized inspection system was to develop and maintain uniform standards and inspection and weighing procedures for grain to facilitate grain marketing in both domestic and foreign markets, according to agency literature. The U.S. Standards for Grain is the result of this and serves as the bible for grain inspectors around the country.

Much of the inspection service's work is performed on commodities bought by USDA for food relief programs, which deliver food to regions suffering drought or starvation. All commodities purchased for food relief must be inspected and certified as meeting the criteria in the U.S. standards to ensure their safety and food value.

The agency also inspects grain upon request.

"Sometimes a seller may choose to have their particular commodity graded," Stallman says. "A lot of them will do it just because they like that piece of paper in their hand. 'We have the federal grain inspection certificate; this is what they said the quality was.'"

Whether inspections are required or requested, the grading is done the same way, without regard for who owns the commodities. A consistent final grade is all that matters.


The requirements in the U.S. standards vary with the commodity. Dried green peas, for example, are graded under a different set of standards than is yellow corn. Standards for moisture content, protein, disease and insect damage, to name a few, also have different minimums and maximums, depending on the crop.

Regarding whole dried peas, for example, the standards define the percent of split peas allowable in each grade. Grade 3 allows up to 1.5 percent of the sample being tested to be split, grade 2 allows 1 percent and grade 1 allows only 0.5 percent to be split.

Peas are graded on weevil damage, heat damage, other damage, bleach, shriveling, cracked seed coats, foreign material, moisture, odor, size and color. Any of these can categories can downgrade the peas from Grade 1 to Grade 3. Those that don't satisfy the minimums for Grade 3 are classified as "U.S. Sample" grade, the lowest possible.

The samples typically are collected in the field where they are stored or being packaged for shipment. Many elevators are equipped with special diverters, which pull samples from the grain stream as it is being moved. Other samples can be taken with probes, called "triers," which can pull samples from bagged grain on a pallet or through the open ports on a hopper car.

In each case, there are specific requirements as to how the samples are to be taken, to assure a random sample is taken and to ensure a good representative sample is taken.

Each sample, weighing about 4 pounds, is returned to the inspection service office's sample room. There, it first is run through a Boerner divider, which splits the sample into even halves. This is done repeatedly until the proper sample size is reached. In edible beans, a sample of roughly 500 grams (a little more than 1 pound) is required. In smooth yellow or smooth green dry peas, 250 grams are needed. This scaled-down sample is what will be inspected, while the remainder is kept on hand for weeks or months, depending on where the shipment is headed.

"We file them in moisture-proof containers," Stallman says. "Most are kept 60 days. We have to give them enough time so that it can get to the ship, the ship to the country, and the country can discharge it and see if there is a quality issue."

Once the time limit expires, the inspection service office donates the grain samples to food relief and local food shelves. The Grand Forks office is one of only a few in the nation to do this.



The inspection laboratory is built around a large central bench at which several inspectors can work at one time.

Next to each inspector is the moisture-proof container with the samples they are inspecting. Also near at hand are the printed U.S. Standards for the grain they are inspecting. There are pea and pinto bean samples spread out on two grooved trays.

All grain inspectors must pass both a written and a practical proficiency examination. The inspectors at the Grand Forks field office must pass a test on every grain for which they wish to be licensed.

Stallman has been making up samples of various grades of corn to test the proficiency of inspectors seeking certification in corn. These samples will contain a certain amount of "bad seeds," drawn from the laboratory storage cooler and intentionally mixed in. Inspectors seeking certification for corn will have to perform an inspection of these samples and identify the bad seed to come up with the right grading.

"I give them a certain number of samples," he says. "They have to get a certain score, or they get to do it again."

Inspector Megan Johnson examines whole peas, a grain for which she already is certified. Armed with a large pair of tweezers, she removes the outer shell of a few suspect peas, one at a time, to reveal the pea itself. She is looking for signs of bleaching. She examines all her samples for signs of damage related to heat, frost, mold and even weevils.

The printed standards also contain pictures of these various problems with written instructions on how to identify the problems. With these "visual reference images," Johnson can compare her actual samples with a printed picture to confirm grading.


"There are two different ways that we do peas," Stallman says. "One is processed, where the plant is in bags. The other one is what we call a thresher run."

A thresher run sample has not been processed and still contains the dockage. On thresher-run peas, there are no numerical grades given. The grading certificates state it is a thresher run only, noting what amounts of the different problems (being split, having foreign material, etc.) are present.

Across from Johnson, inspector Carmon Lindblad checks a sample of pinto beans. She starts with about 500 grams of beans, she says. She is separating foreign material, split and damages beans into separate trays. These will be compared with the overall sample to provide a percentage of each category, which will help will determine the grade of the pinto beans.

Once the grain is graded, a certificate is filled out and given to the customer for his or her files. The certificates used to be strictly paper.

"A lot of the certification now is electronic," Stallman says. "They are sent in a file that can't be tampered with."

If the grain customer disagrees for any reason with the grade his or her grain received, the customer can request an appeal inspection. Appeal inspections are conducted in exactly the same manner as the first inspection. If the customer still is not satisfied, the next step in the appeal process is to a special grain inspection board in Kansas City, Mo. The word there is final.

What To Read Next
Get Local