Beef Grading Scale
Like almost everything in life, not all beef is created equal. Understanding the terms related to beef quality levels is important, especially in today’s world of ecommerce where you have only pictures and words to judge something before purchasing.
USDA Select beef holds the bronze medal of the three top finalists in the beef grading world; but in our opinion, it’s been lapped a couple of times by the higher two grades. Approximately 65-70% of all meat produced in the United States will receive this marbling score. It is also the most likely grade of meat that you’ll see in your local grocery stores. Characterized as having only a slight degree of marbling, more often than not what you’ll see in Select beef is a blank slate – virtually zero marbling to speak of. The high-temperature cooking methods, such as grilling or searing, would cause steaks of this grade to toughen, and wouldn’t give you a memorable dining experience. That said, for extremely gentle methods of cooking, such as braising, you could get away with Select. This grade is the “bread and butter” of the major producers because it can be considered as a commodity product, and the commercial buyers are really not interested in quality, but price. This grade is the heart and soul of US exports to foreign markets; as well as the primary grade level sold in major retailers.
Next up on the grading scale is USDA Choice, a title which approximately 10-15% of beef produced in the US receives. Choice beef is predominant on many mid-level restaurant menus since it’s more readily available and cheaper than prime. You’ll see a higher degree of marbling in choice beef than you will in Select, but it’s still very hit and miss. In 1949, the Department of Agriculture formally altered the grade levels; Select became Choice, and Choice became Prime, and Prime kind of floated above the others. Over the years, there is a bit of blurring of the lines between Choice and Prime. Your ‘A-Level’ cuts from Choice beef – Ribeye, New York, Filet, Porterhouse – will go well on the grill, though they will still present with a bit of a chew; however, a good dry aging program will go a long way to fix this.
At the top of the beef grading scale is USDA Prime. It’s somewhat accepted belief that about 2% of beef produced in the US is graded at this level. My belief is that presently the number is closer to half of one percent. It’s been slowly declining over the years as ranchers are leaving their animals for longer periods of time on pasture alone. This, in my estimation, is why the Prime grade needs to be confirmed with a second opinion. If the grader believes that about 2% of the group he/she is grading will be Prime, then for every 1000 head, they will seek out 20 to designate Prime. But what if this particular lot is of low quality? Human nature will be to look for the best 2%; and compared to the others, they will look better, so they get Prime by default. I just think they haven’t heard the news that 2% is no longer operable.
You’ll be able to find Prime beef locally in boutique butcher shops or upscale grocery stores, but very rarely do these places offer dry aged Prime. What sets the Prime apart from the Choice and Select is the intensity of the marbling. Marbling will present slightly differently depending on the breed of the cattle, but the absolute best Prime steaks will be laced with thin flecks of marbling, the intramuscular fat, spaced evenly throughout the meat. This concentration and uniformity of marbling is what creates such a memorable dining experience; as the meat is cooked, those veins of intramuscular fat help to flavor the meat, as well as bring a level of tenderness that cannot be beaten.
History & Background
The concept of grading beef in terms of quality began in the US in the 1920s when the Department of Agriculture was tasked with implementing a system to categorize whole carcass beef quality. The reason for this was to aid large institutions such as the military, hospitals, railroads, etc. to have uniform standards for purchasing. Initially, grading was free and voluntary, and 12 months later moved to a fee basis. It quickly caught on primarily as it allowed smaller beef processing plants to compete with the much larger centralized plants. In WWII, grading became mandatory as a facet of the wartime price controls. The original classifications were: Prime, Choice, Good, Medium, Common, Cutter, and Canner. Over the years the list has been shortened to: Prime, Choice, Select, and Canner.
An interesting sidebar to this is that the term Select replaced the term Good (an attempt to improve the public’s perception of this level of beef) as recently as 1987, and I personally think that one could make the argument that that was about when the grading began to soften. Presently, grading by the USDA is voluntary at the packinghouse level, but almost all major producers are grading their cattle. While only the USDA can use the terms above, graded cattle need not be marketed under the designation given by the USDA; many of the larger (and smaller) supermarket chains will introduce a trademark name in order to avoid the “Select” designation. As a rule of thumb, any beef rated high enough to be either USDA Prime or USDA Choice will in fact be marketed as such.
At the heart of it, what gives a particular piece of meat the grade is how much marbling it contains. There are other factors involved (maturity, firmness, texture), but the main player is the distribution of marbling. The grading process takes place at the slaughterhouse and is overseen by the Agricultural Marketing Services branch of the USDA. Before the carcasses are broken down into primals, a cut is made between the 11th and 12th ribs, which will give the grade the ability to visually inspect the marbling levels. As the grader goes down the line, they use their judgment with or without template aids to mark the beef with the corresponding grade. If a particular carcass is graded Prime, every part will Prime from the most tender to the least tender cut – everything is Prime. For reasons of commerce, the meatpackers will only segregate certain cuts as prime (only about 30%of the whole), and will combine the rest into lots marked “Choice or higher”; so even though the whole beef was Prime, many cuts don’t travel with the designation.
One of the things that we deal with (alluded to in the discussion of the name change from Good to Select) is a softening in the grading standards that quite often means receiving product that we do not believe is deserving of the USDA Prime grade. On average, approximately 15% of USDA Prime beef that we bring in, we choose not to sell as USDA Prime because in our opinion it doesn’t meet the pre-1987 definition of Prime. It is also why we are fanatical about only accepting beef from certain producers. We have received USDA Choice beef from an establishment in the Midwest that was of a higher quality level than USDA Prime beef coming out of a plant in the Northwest. Whether the error in judgment could be traced to a grader with little experience, or perhaps trying to come up with something in an overall low-quality batch of cattle; it’s important to remember that the given grade is not the end-all.