"Extra fancy," "prime" and "Grade A" are descriptions used in the federal food grading programs.

According to a report by the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), all they do is confuse consumers.

In presenting the report to the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, which requested the study, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) said: "The importance of having sound, clear information about the quality of the foods we buy is underscored by the increasing concern of food buyers over rising food prices, as well as our concern for the relationship between dietary habits and health problems."

Grading in the three major food categories - fresh fruits and vegetables, meats and processed foods - is optional. It was originally designed more than 50 years ago as a tool for the food industry, not as a guide for consumers.

The OTA report suggests several options to Congress, among them whether to make grading mandatory.

It must also be decided if grading should reflect nutritional information as well as sensory characteristics such as flavor, texture and color.

The report suggests leaving nutrition labeling of processed foods as it is. To provide similar information for produce and meats. Congress could direct the Food and Drug Administration and USDA to establish separate systems.

OTA found that marbling - the flecks of fat within the muscle of the meat - is not the indicator of tenderness and flavor it once was. So the report suggests a more useful consumer meat grade might be based on the ratio of fat to lean.

Should Congress decide that grading be made mandatory, OTA notes that it would add to the cost of food.