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Beef Grade

Beef Grade and Steak Pefection

LOS ANGELES, California Chefs who aspire to Steak Perfection understand the system for awarding a USDA Beef Grade (or the system used in their own country).  This website and the Steak Perfection book provide detailed information so that everyone can learn how a beef grade is determined, what it means, and how it relates to steak perfection.

Most beef sold around the world is regulated by the various countries.  In the United States, beef is graded by the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) and includes both a quality grade and a yield grade.  See the U.S. Department of Agriculture's website for more information.

Current grading system

The USDA inspectors mark beef carcasses (including full-, half- and quarter-carcasses) with a quality grade mark.  Quality grading is designed to distinguish between differences in palatability among carcasses.  In red meat carcasses the quality grade has served as a nationwide guide to the eating qualities of meat, including its tenderness, juiciness, and flavor. 

Beef quality attributes considered to be of value include:  (1) maturity,  (2) marbling,  (3) texture of the lean,  (4) firmness of the lean and fat, and  (5) color of the lean and fat.  

The quality grade is determined by considering the degree of marbling and firmness as observed in the cut surface of the rib eye in relation to the maturity of the carcass.  In other words, a younger beef cannot be expected to have the same marbling in the rib eye as the older one.  

There are eight grades of beef, although only the first three or four are usually sold in markets.  These grades are, in descending order of quality:

  • Prime
  • Choice
  • Select
  • Standard
  • Commercial
  • Utility
  • Cutter
  • Canner

The first two grades -- prime and choice -- are top quality, the select grade is average.  The other grades should not be used in most circumstances.

Three Choice Grade levels

The Choice Grade represents beef which is 15% more marbled than Select.  The Choice Grade covers a very broad spectrum of beef.  Within the Choice Grade, there are three different levels of quality, which are usually called:

  • Small marbling
  • Modest marbling
  • Moderate marbling

Moderately marbled USDA Choice is the top cut, just one step short of Prime.  Branded beef often uses this top cut of Choice for its program (see below).

Decline in beef quality

Chefs should know a little about the history of the grading system in order to understand how a change in the grading system led to a decline in the quality of beef.  Experts agree that the quality of beef today is much worse that it was twenty years ago.  This will explain the reason.

Prior to 1987, the top three grades of beef in the U.S. were Prime, Choice and Good.  The major difference was the degree of marbling:  Prime is 15% more marbled than Choice, which is 15% more marbled than Good.  About three-fourths of grain-fed beef was graded Prime or Choice.

The National Cattlemen's Association (NCA) started a nationwide consumer movement for lean beef.  At the request of the NCA, Texas A&M University produced the "National Consumer Retail Beef Study", which began the "War on Fat".  The study recommended that consumers be educated to purchase lean beef.

The problem was that beef graded Prime and Choice were fatter, and consumers had learned that beef graded Good was lean but tough.

The "solution" - so typically the resort of those with poor ideas but a "we know better than them" conviction - was to change the definition.  That is, change the name of the grade from Good to Select, so that consumers could be "fooled" into thinking that a lean cut was better than one with fat.  In other words, consumers would be "re-educated" (some would call the government's efforts nothing less than propaganda) to prefer lean, lower-quality beef.

As opposed to the fraudulent "solution", the fact is that the taste of beef results from marbling (intermuscular fat).  Prime Grade beef tastes better than lowers graded beef because it has more marbling - more fat.  Conversely, leaner beef has less marbling and less taste.  

In the 1980s, some people argued that consumers deserved to be educated, not brain-washed.  They urged the industry to educate consumers on the following facts:  (1)  marbled beef tastes better than leaner beef;  (2)  marbled beef is more expensive than leaner beef;  but (3) eating too much marbled beef is not healthy.  Those who urged this lost the argument to others who wanted to "fool the consumers" with a combination of a name-change coupled with the false and incomplete message that "lean beef tastes better and is healthier".  Both statements are false:  lean beef does not taste better, and lean beef if not healthier.

Skeptics may argue that the beef industry succeeded beyond their wildest expectations and hopes.  After all, now 80% of Prime Grade U.S. beef is exported (mostly to Japan) at premium prices;  U.S. consumers are now buying low-quality beef without objection;  and the low-quality beef costs the industry much less to produce (yet it now produces the same revenue as previously received for high-quality beef).

For more information, see Robb Walsh's story, "A Matter of Fat".

In 1987, as a result of the study, the USDA Good Grade was renamed the Select Grade.  Since then, consumers have been "educated" into believing that lean beef like Select Grade is a high quality grade, and beef of the highest quality has declined in availability (quantity) and, according to some, even in quality.  According to Marilyn Spiera, President of the famous Brooklyn steakhouse, Peter Luger, "A lot of the meat they now sell as 'Prime' wouldn't even be graded 'Choice' 35 years ago."  Quoted by John Mariani, Ready for Prime Time.

CAB and other branded beef programs

Because the 1987 changes led consumers to experience a decrease in the quality (taste) of beef, a market for higher quality beef developed, which itself led to the development of branded beef programs.  The best marketed and thus best known program now is the Certified Angus Beef (CAB).

CAB uses the top third of the Choice Grade, which is called the Moderately Marbled level of Choice.  With the consumer confusion caused by the USDA's changes, CAB allows consumers an alternative to the confusing (for them) government grading.  According to a report, "After the USDA issues a grade, an Angus grader comes through and stamps the meat that fits their program.  What they are taking is, by and large, the top level of USDA Choice."  CAB and other programs market their beef without the USDA labels and pass off as the highest quality those cuts which are not quite Prime Grade but are nevertheless affordable.

Most consumers and even many barbecue cooks believe incorrectly that CAB is Prime Grade.  Of course, that is exactly what CAB wants consumers to believe (and it is the reason that CAB itself does not usually label the USDA Grade on its products).

CAB is only one of the many branded beef programs.  Sterling Silver and others are also widely available.

In addition, there are a new generation of "organic", "natural" and "hormone-free" beef sold in the U.S.  While these in the past had been available only from "health food stores", they are now becoming commonly available in supermarkets.

Yield grades

The USDA grades beef with a yield grade, in addition to the quality grade.  Yield grading is designed to illustrate the percentage of lean meat that can be obtained from a beef carcass.  The yield grade of a beef carcass is determined by four characteristics:  (1) amount of external fat;  (2) amount of kidney, pelvic, and heart fat;  (3) area of the rib eye muscle; and,  (4) warm carcass weight.

There are five yield grades numbered 1 through 5.  Beef carcasses in Yield Grade 1 have the highest degree of cutability while carcasses in Yield Grade 5 have the lowest.  (Cutability refers to the proportion of the carcass weight that is actually saleable at the retail counter.)  Yield grades are applied without regard to quality grade.  Grades such as USDA Prime-1, Choice-1, Choice-2, or any combination of quality grade and yield grade may be applied to the carcass.  

Grading not mandatory

Commercial produced beef in the United States is not required to be officially graded.  For example, most States have a department to inspect and grade meat and poultry, but federal law prohibits the interstate transportation of any meat or poultry that has not been federally inspected.


Related information


Related information:

 

 

Beef

Want to know where beef cuts come from?  Or information about hormones, Mad Cow Disease (BSE), Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD), and other stories?  Check out these the Beef Industry Resource.

Here are pictures drawing and posters of the various retail cuts and where they come from.


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