February 1996 // Volume 34 // Number 1 // Research in Brief // 1RIB3

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Improving Consumer Understanding of Product Grade Names

This article examines a progressive three step method (focus groups, survey instrument development, and consumer survey) Extension professionals can use to assist commodity groups develop consumer understandable grade names for their products. The example used in this article is maple syrup. The three step method was used to develop a new set of grade names which describe the color and flavor of maple syrup. To date, the industry has not formally adopted the new grade name system, but individual producers and retailers are adding the names to their package label to better communicate with consumers and market their product.

Barbara H. James
Extension Agent
Family and Consumer Sciences/Community Development
Internet address: geau@agvax2.ag.ohio-state.edu

Randall E. James
Extension Agent
Agriculture and Natural Resources

Ohio State University Extension
Geauga County Office
Burton, Ohio

USDA #1, Choice, Jumbo, Fancy, Cutter... agricultural commodity grade names. What do they mean to the consumer? Do they assist the consumer in making educated choices about a product... or do they mean nothing?

Grading standards and grade names have developed over the years to assist in the long distance trading of agricultural products. They are important marketing tools for growers, handlers, processors and large terminal markets. They serve a number of functions in the wholesale market. But they have not been developed to communicate with consumers (Janick, 1986; Lieberman, 1983). An opportunity exists for Extension professionals to work with commodity groups to develop understandable grade names that convey information about the product to the consumer; while maintaining the integrity of the grading system for the benefit of the wholesale market.

This article examines a progressive three step method, including focus group interviews, survey instrument development and a national mail survey, to identify consumer understandable grade names. This method has potential for use in generating consumer understandable grade names for many food products. The example used in this article is pure maple syrup.


Step 1 - Focus Group Interviews

Focus group interviews were conducted with consumers to identify purchasing criteria and proposed grade names based on that identified criteria.

Participants in the focus groups were randomly selected from producer/retailers' mailing lists of annual purchasers of maple syrup as provided by board members of the Ohio Maple Syrup Producers Association. Each group had seven to nine men and women of various ages (Archer, 1987; Greenbaum, 1988). Questions and questioning procedures were reviewed and edited by an Ohio State University Extension faculty member who has a specialty in focus group interviews. Focus group interviews were conducted until little new information was provided. Three focus group interviews were conducted (Krueger, 1988).

The focus group process identified color and flavor as the primary criteria used by consumers in purchasing pure maple syrup. The grade names "delicate," "standard," and "hearty" were gleaned from the focus group information and suggested as replacements for the existing USDA system USDA Grade A Light Amber, Medium Amber, and Dark Amber.

It would be tempting to simply take the information gleaned from the focus group interviews, draw conclusions and make recommendations to the industry. However, focus groups are better used to provide information to assist in conducting additional research (Greenbaum, 1988). Therefore the information was used to develop a survey instrument.

Step 2 - Survey Instrument

The development of an original questionnaire was the most challenging part of this research methodology. The instrument needed to measure the respondent's ability to match definitions based on the focus group identified criteria of color and flavor with various grade names.

The industry has traditionally used the USDA grade name system and the Vermont name system which only described the color of maple syrup grades. These two grading name systems were pitted against the focus group suggested set, which the focus groups felt more fully described the sensory properties of the product. A completely bogus system (the beef grading system) never used by the industry was also included (Table 1).

Table 1
Maple Syrup Grade Names Tested
Set 1
Current USDA
Set 2
Focus Group
Set 3
Set 4
Lightest Grade Grade A
Light Amber
Delicate Prime Fancy
Medium Grade Grade A
Medium Amber
Standard Choice Grade A
Medium Amber
Darkest Grade Grade A
Dark Amber
Hearty Good Grade A
Dark Amber

Each page of the survey instrument contained a different set of grade names. Definitions, based on information from focus group interviews, followed. The consumer was asked to match each grade name with the most appropriate definition. A sample page from the instrument (with the correct responses) appears in Table 2. The survey instrument was field tested by eleven customers of pure maple syrup.

Table 2
Maple Syrup Grade Names Survey Instrument Page
Set 1
Number of Correct Definition
2. Grade A Light Amber
5. Grade A Medium Amber
3. Grade A Dark Amber

Step 3 - Mail Survey

It is recommended that focus group interviews be used early in the research process for idea generation. A more quantitative research study should then be used to test the new ideas with a larger population (Greenbaum, 1988). The information gleaned from the focus group interviews and used to develop the survey instrument, became the basis for conducting a mail survey of 100% pure maple syrup customers across the United States. Customer names were provided by North American Maple Syrup Council members from their mailing lists. Five hundred sixty-five maple syrup customers were surveyed with 349 questionnaires returned (62% rate). Questionnaires were mailed three times.

Reliability was determined on each of the grading name sets using a Kuder Richardson Reliability test. Reliability for each set was as follows: Set 1 (USDA) 0.2308, Set 2 (focus group suggested) 0.5011, Set 3 (bogus) 0.47777, and Set 4 (Vermont system) 0.2531. The focus group suggested name set was the most accurate, dependable and consistent. Set 3 the bogus system was also fairly reliable (0.47777), this can be explained by the fact that the bogus system is actually the beef grading system of prime, choice and good. Therefore the set's internal reliability is not surprising. However, a one-sample chi-square analysis conducted on the four sets of grade names revealed that the expected distribution frequency relative to the observed distribution was so small for the "bogus" system that it was dropped from further analysis.

The "focus group suggested" grade name system was clearly the most understandable by maple syrup customers. Forty-four percent of the respondents correctly matched all three grade names with the appropriate characteristics. Twenty-five percent matched the USDA system, twelve percent matched the Vermont system and eight percent matched the bogus system.


The three step methodology outlined in this article can utilize the expertise of Extension professionals working in agriculture, community development and consumer science. Extension professionals have an opportunity to assist commodity groups, anywhere in the country, develop consumer understandable grade names. The new names will allow product grading systems to communicate not only to wholesale buyers and sellers, but to retail consumers as well. Extension can therefore help reduce confusion in the marketplace by helping producers and consumers communicate more clearly.

The idea is catching on! At least one commodity group, The Alaskan Birch Syrup Makers Association, is currently adapting this methodology for use with their product.


Archer, T. (1987). Focus group interview. Edge Guide to Evaluation Fact Sheet. Columbus: The Ohio State University Extension.

Greenbaum, T. L. (1988). The practical handbook and guide to focus group research. Lexington, MA: Lexington.

Janick, J. (1986). Horticultural science. New York: Freeman.

Krueger, R. A. (1988). Focus groups--A practical guide for applied research. Newberry Park, CA: Sages.

Lieberman, M. (1983). Post-harvest physiology and crop preservation. New York: Plenum.