To help cooks pick the right cut of beef for every occasion, we’ve put together a guide explaining how the USDA grades beef and what it really means when a steak or beef roast is labeled Prime, Choice, or Select.
It’s almost impossible to miss the label on the packages of steaks and roasts lining the cases inside butcher shops and grocery stores.
The grades prominently displayed on each label declare the cut inside to be Prime, Choice, or Select, assuring the buyer the beef meets the USDA’s standards. Whether or not the person buying knows what those standards are or how they apply to the way the meat inside will be cooked is another question altogether.
Understanding what those standards are and how they’re assigned can be helpful for people to understand what they’re buying, whether or not it’s a good value, and how the meat should be cooked. It’s also worth learning about the standards to understand what types of things are not included in the grading process.
In this piece
How the USDA Grades Beef
The USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) administers a wide range of grading, inspection, and marketing programs for U.S. food, fiber, and specialty crop producers.
The grading and inspection process is designed to “assure consumers that the products they buy have gone through a rigorous review process by highly-skilled graders & auditors that follow the official grade standards and process standards developed, maintained and interpreted by USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service.”
Food Safety Inspections
The inspection process for cattle includes a mandatory food safety inspection that is separate from the grading process. The grading process includes both a quality grade and a quantity grade.
The food safety process or wholesomeness inspection is mandatory and starts while the cattle are still alive. The inspectors check to see if the cows have been treated humanly and if they are healthy. The wholesomeness inspection also involves inspecting the slaughtering process, the animal’s internal organs, and the cleanliness of the carcass, among other things.
The food safety inspection is a mandatory pass-or-fail test, with cattle that fail the test being completely removed from the food system. The food safety inspection is paid for with public funds.
Quality Grading System
The beef quality grading system, which is the one most familiar to cooks, provides each carcass with a grade designed to predict its expected tenderness, juiciness, and flavor. The USDA assigns eight quality grades of beef: Prime, Choice, Select, Standard, Commercial, Utility, Cutter, and Canner, to each carcass.
The grading inspection process is voluntary and is paid for by the processors and producers. It is conducted by federally licensed graders who provide the service through the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service. The inspectors assign a beef quality grade based on the amount of marbling and the physiological maturity of the animal.
Marbling is the amount of intramuscular fat dispersed between the muscle fibers inside the lean meat. This differs from intermuscular fat, which is the fat on the outside that is usually trimmed off. There is a deeper discussion on why the level of marbling matters later on.
To determine the amount of marbling, the grader looks at the amount of marbling in the ribeye muscle between the 12th and 13th ribs. There are 10 degrees of marbling that vary numerically from 000 to 999 and are often broken into categories ranging from practically devoid to slightly abundant.
The meat’s color and texture are also considered and can be categorized from A to E, with A being a light cherry red and fine texture to E, which has a dark red appearance and course texture.
The second part of the grading process involves the maturity of cattle. The reason maturity is used is that as cattle get older, their meat tends to get tougher and leaner. The maturity portion of the grade is broken down into five categories A, B, C, D, and E.
Maturity can be verified using documentation from USDA approved programs that track the actual age of the animal or through the inspection process at a processing facility.
Physiological maturity is used as a stand-in for the cattle’s age. To measure the physiological maturity of a carcass, the inspectors evaluate the size, shape, and ossification of the bones and cartilage with a focus on the split chine bones in younger cattle. In older cattle, the inspectors focus more on the ossification changes that occur on the ends of the split thoracic vertebrae. Ossification is the hardening or calcification of soft tissue into a bone-like material.
The relationship between levels of marbling and carcass maturity can be seen in the figure below.
Yield Grading Process
The inspectors also provide each beef carcass with a yield grade that provides information on the amount of usable lean meat. This portion of the grading process ranges from 1 to 5 and is intended primarily for processors.
To determine the yield grade, the inspectors use four characteristics:
- The amount of external fat.
- The amount of kidney, pelvic, and heart fat.
- The area of the ribeye muscle.
- The weight of the carcass.
The four factors are inputted into a formula that provides the final yield grade.
Things Not Included in the USDA Grading Process
There are a number of factors that aren’t covered in the grading process that can be important to know when choosing cuts of meat. Some of these factors may be on the label at the grocery store or butcher shop, but it’s worth noting that they are not part of the inspection process.
This includes the breed of the cow, which is especially important if one is purchasing a premium breed such as Angus or Wagyu beef. Whether or not the cattle was grass or grain fed, was pasture-raised, or how long the meat was aged.
All of these factors can make a difference in how the beef tastes when it’s finished cooking. They also are often personal and subjective – especially when it comes to things like whether grass or grain-fed beef tastes better. These factors also tend to affect the price of beef.
The best way for a cook to be assured they’re getting what they’re paying for is to develop a relationship with the supplier they are buying from, whether it is from a local butcher shop, grocery store, or buying directly from the people that raise the cattle.
What’s on the label
In addition to the grade, a number of other pieces of information are generally on the label at the grocery store and some butcher shops. These include the primal and subprimal cuts—the weight of the cut, price per pound, and total price. The package will often include a sell-by date and safe handling instructions.
History of Grading Beef
The origins of grading beef in the United States can be traced back to a study funded by Congress in 1914 to study agricultural marketing. The study was the result of a desire by the beef industry to develop an understanding of the classes and grades of cattle and how they relate to the market and feedlots.
The study led to Congress establishing the National Livestock Market News Service in 1916. To be able to report on the livestock market, there needed to be a classification system, and the system needed to be understandable enough that it could be reported through the press.
Another reason for the system was people’s disappointment with their meat purchases and the desire to have a grading system to help them understand what they were buying.
The grading system for beef was eventually adopted in 1926 and has been, with a few exceptions, voluntary since its inception. The use of the grading system received a boost during World War II, and the Korean conflict when grading was mandatory and price controls were in effect.
According to a brief history by Harris, Cross, and Savil, during these periods of mandatory grading, consumers were satisfied with the grading system, and it allowed regional and local meat packers to compete with national meat packers.
The system has evolved to take into account changes in the industry and changing tastes. This has included combining and renaming categories, changing the emphasis on maturity, and among other things allowing the use of photography and instruments to aid in the grading process.
The system for grading beef was used as a model for grading other types of livestock. The AMS currently has a wide range of grading and inspection systems for agricultural products, including pork, lamb, poultry, rabbits, goats, fruits, vegetables, and grains.
What is Marbling & How it Affects Flavor
The amount of marbling in a piece of meat has long been associated with quality and flavor, with the general rule being the more marbling, the more flavor. Marbling is the intramuscular fat interspersed between the muscle fibers. It can be seen as the little white flecks of fat located within the lean red meat.
The reason the amount of marbling is so important is that it provides tenderness, lubrication, and flavor in steaks and roasts. When beef is cooked, the fat in the marbling melts or becomes soft, helping to make the cut tender.
The fat also carries more flavor than the lean part of the meat, meaning that all things being equal, the more marbling a cut has, the more flavorful it will be.
Marbling also helps prevent a cut from drying out. As a piece of meat cooks, the fat in it starts to soften and render as it loses moisture. The more marbling a cut has, the longer it can cook before drying out.
Essentially, marbling provides cooks with a larger window of time to cook meat before it dries out and makes it taste better.
This extra time is more important when using dry heat or high heat cooking methods such as grilling or roasting in the oven than with low and slow techniques such as sous vide, braising, or pressure cookers.
What to Look for When Choosing Beef
There are a few things to look for when choosing cuts of beef. This applies regardless of grade or cut.
Always choose beef with a bright red color to it, which is firm to the touch. Avoid packages where the beef looks wet, has a grayish color, or has excessive liquid. The packaging should be cold, and it should be without holes or tears.
When purchasing from a butcher, feel free to ask them to see the piece up close to see if it’s firm to the touch and smells fresh. Older beef has a distinctive off-putting smell and should be avoided when possible.
Try and purchase beef before the sell-by date and as close to the time it will be cooked as possible. Freshness makes a difference when it comes to flavor. Dry-aged beef is an altogether different thing with its own criteria.
USDA Beef Grades
The following includes a brief description of the USDA’s beef grades, how they are commonly used, and some cooking tips for each grade.
According to the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, there has been a notable change in the amount and proportion of beef graded Prime over the past decade, with 3.3 percent (673 million pounds) of beef graded Prime in 2010 to 10.3 percent (2.2 billion pounds) graded Prime in 2021.
There has been a similar increase in beef graded Choice, 64.5 percent to 74.6 percent, during the same time period. During this period, the total amount of graded beef has remained relatively stable, with 22,068 million pounds of beef graded in 2010 compared to 21,623 million pounds graded in 2021.
The other major trend has been in the amount of beef graded Select, which has declined from 31.5 percent (6,416 million pounds) of graded beef in 2010 to 14.8 percent (3,182 million pounds) in 2021.
U.S. Prime Beef
USDA Prime beef comes from young, well fed cattle with abundant marbling. It is well known for being full flavored, tender, and juicy. It is primarily found in restaurants, hotels, and high-end butcher shops.
Prime cuts are quite a bit more expensive than similar Choice cuts and are well suited for dry-heat cooking. When cooking at home, Prime is often chosen for holidays, birthdays, or other special occasions.
This grilled steak recipe provides an excellent way to grill Ribeyes, Porterhouses, T-bones, N.Y. strips, or similar cuts graded Prime or Choice.
U.S. Choice Beef
USDA Choice beef has less marbling than Prime but more than Select grade cuts. It is the most widely available grade of beef, making up almost 75 percent of all the beef graded in 2021. With 4 to 10 percent fat content, it is well marbled and can be cooked using dry heat methods such as grilling or roasting. It also does well when it’s braised or simmered.
A beef roast graded Choice such as Top Round, Eye of Round, or Sirloin makes incredibly tender Roast Beef when they are slow roasted in the oven. Beef roasts graded Choice or Select respond well when turned into Smoked Beef Roasts or Sous Vide Roast Beef.
U.S. Select Beef
USDA Select beef is uniform in quality and leaner than the higher grades. To make up for the lack of marbling, Select cuts are often marinated before cooking and are braised, simmered, or cooked sous vide to maximize the amount of flavor and tenderness without drying them out.
This Instant Pot Pot Roast recipe provides a roadmap for using a pressure cooker to cook roasts graded Select or Choice. Select and Choice can also be turned into ground beef which is excellent for tacos, burgers, casseroles, and more.
U.S. Standard & Commerical Beef
USDA Standard and Commercial beef cuts are typically sold ungraded and as store-brand meat.
U.S. Utility, Cutter, and Canner Beef
Very little beef is graded as USDA Utility, Cutter, and Canner anymore these days. It is even rarer for the lowest grades to be sold directly to consumers. Beef that does receive this grade is usually turned into ground beef and other processed products.
Leave a Reply