When shipments of fresh produce arrive at wholesale centers, called terminal
markets, disputes can arise between the seller and the buyer over the quality
and condition of the shipments. This is where fruit and vegetable graders
enter the picture.
"We're the impartial person that reports the facts on the load or the product,"
says Cathy Hance. She is the officer in charge of grading at the Hunt's Point
terminal in New York.
"We're actually performing inspections, but we're called agriculture commodity
graders," she adds.
Most graders work at terminal markets. But when requested, they also travel
to distribution centers and even retail stores, providing service at many
points along the food distribution chain.
They may perform inspections on product shipped from a packer to a wholesale
receiver or from a wholesale receiver to a retail company.
But just what does a grader do?
"Fresh produce graders pull random samples from a load in question, examine
individual product specimens within each sample, identify any defects as outlined
in U.S. grade standards or other specifications and prepare an official inspection
certificate that documents the results of the inspection," says Rob Huttenlocker.
He works with the fresh products branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture
It may sound like a fairly simple job. But graders must adhere to hundreds
of grade standards for hundreds of commodities as regulated by the USDA.
"In addition, graders inspect numerous other commodities for which no U.S.
grade standards exist [such as bananas] and here they must rely on experience
and good reasoning to make good decisions," says Huttenlocker.
Grader Jeffrey Honey says working in a variety of locations presents physical
challenges. "I have climbed into rail cars of carrots from California to retrieve
a temperature recorder by crawling over the load 18 inches from the ceiling.
I am not very fond of 100-pound sacks of potatoes when I have 15 samples to
inspect. And I stand for hours at a time," he says.
"Because grading involves most of the senses, graders must be able to see,
smell, taste and feel," says Huttenlocker.
And graders are early birds. Typically, they begin work at 5 or 6 a.m.
Huttenlocker says overtime and weekend work for USDA graders is sometimes
required, offering extra pay at higher rates.
The results of an inspector's report are important to anyone financially
involved in the shipment. The report determines grade, and therefore price,
of the commodity.
However, the impartial inspections are often controversial.
"Nine times out of 10, someone is not happy," says Hance.
She says patience is an important quality for graders. They must also stick
to accurate reporting of the facts. "A sound work ethic and high integrity
are essential characteristics," says Huttenlocker.
Kathleen Staley has many years of experience as a federal grader. She says
graders must balance a cordial, professional relationship with the fact that
they must remain impartial. "It is important that there is no perception of
favoritism being shown," she says.