Tony Subia: December 7, 2013
USDA Beef Grading System
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) applies a meticulous, rigorous and very expert beef grading system. The grading criteria is implemented to protect the consumer as an impartial judge of beef quality. The grading system ensures a uniform quality and a consistent benchmark of of beef marketing among beef retailers and steak restaurants.
The USDA grades beef at the request of a meat packers of which there are about 35 nationwide. Grading experts are housed at those packers to ensure regulations and grading accuracy . The criteria is stringently applied to very objective specifications. Only beef that is USDA inspected may carry the authentic USDA shield of authenticity.
How Beef Is Graded
Beef tenderness, taste and safety are the foundations of the USDA grading system. Although the processes are somewhat complex, essentially there are two major factors that determine quality. Amount fat marbling and its distribution combined with age of the steer.
Marbling (intramuscular fat) is the dispersion of fat specs within the lean portions. The degree of marbling is determined at a surface cut of the ribeye muscle between the 12th and 13h ribs. The amount and distribution of fat marbling determines levels of juiciness and flavor. The age of the beef substantially determines firmness, texture, and color of the lean portion.
USDA Grades of Beef
Unless the beef is certified and labeled as USDA inspected and graded, it has not been graded. There are eight grades of beef designated by the USDA. Generally just the top five are ever sold to the consumer as cuts of beef. The three lowest grades are typically only used for processed meats, canned meats, and some frozen dinners.
Retail grocers, butcher-shops and restaurants generally only sell the three highest grades of In quality order they are USDA Prime, USDA Choice, or USDA Select. The best steak houses only serve Prime and/or Choice. Select is generally the most common grade sold in grocery stores. That’s because it is cheaper, very lean, and has less fat marbling making it tougher to chew with less juiciness and flavor.
If beef is not USDA labeled, then it has not been inspected and certified by the USDA. Often retailers and even restaurants will apply their own unique labels to ungraded beef.. You will often see such monickers as Award-Winning, Blue Ribbon, Premium, Black Angus and even just the words “Prime” and “Choice” absent the USDA certification which is legal. Some grocers use enticing names as deceptive practice. However, those names do not necessarily imply poor quality, but should signal suspect.
The highest (best) levels of USDA graded beef have a greater level of fat marbling within the lean muscle portions and derived from younger (2 years) steers. Degrees with grades are divided into 100 subunits and scoring is more finely discussed in tenths within each degree of marbling. Therefore there could be insignificant differences between the lowest level of USDA Prime versus the highest level of USDA Choice.
The same would apply between the lowest degree of USDA Choice versus the highest degree of USDA Select. Cost versus quality often will not be readily obvious. When shopping for beef and steaks pay close visual attention to finely dispersed marbling and color. The most desirable cuts of beef will have a bright “cherry red” color, a greater abundance of dispersed marbling and fine texture. Color of cuts of beef from older-age cattle becomes a much darker red with a more coarse texture.
Video of Detailed Methods of How USDA Grades Quality of Beef
USDA Prime Beef
The highest graded level. Most abundant marbling. Derived from the youngest cattle. Most tender, juicy, buttery flavorful and finest texture. Few retail grocers carry USDA Prime Beef and steaks. Only about 2% of beef is certified USDA Prime and is usually found in specialty butcher shops and high-end, upscale steakhouses. Best for grilling.
USDA Choice Beef
The second highest graded level. Moderate marbling. Excellent economic alternative to USDA Prime. Slightly less tender, less juicy and a bit more coarse than prime. Typically found in grocery stores and some of the best steak house restaurants. Best for grilling.
USDA Select Beef
The third highest graded level. Slightly marbled. Most lean. More coarse texture that prime or choice. Much less tender. More likely to be tough. Usually the lowest grade of steak found in grocery stores. Not as desirable. Typically served in lower-end steak houses. Usually not ideal for dry grilling. Best wet-cooked and braised. If grilled, marinate to increase tenderness.
Lesser USDA Grades
USDA Standard and USDA Commercial are very lean with little fat. Very tough. Derived from older cattle. Not ideal for grilling at all. Cheap. When sold in stores this quality is typically ungraded by the USDA. Utility, Cutter and Canner grades are almost void of any fat and are sourced from much more mature cattle. They are typically used in processed meat products, canned meats and some low-cost frozen dinners.