What does ‘Quality’ mean to you?
Quality can mean lots of things. In regards to meat, some people may equate it with freshness or wholesomeness. Others may think the word ‘Quality’ indicates nutritional quality, in that a certain food is good for you. Still others may think ‘Quality’ means it tastes good, meaning that high quality meat it is tender, juicy, and full of flavor. All of these are true.
However, in the beef industry when we talk about Quality grading, we are talking about terms like Prime and Choice, and those terms help us know how tender, juicy, and flavorful a beef cut may be based on the age of the animal and the amount of marbling (the little flecks of fat found within the muscles in a cut of beef). These grades are used to help farmers and meat packers market their animals based on an indicator of eating satisfaction. Keep in mind that grading is different from Inspection, which determines whether or not the meat is safe and wholesome, and grading is voluntary whereas inspection is required.
At the turn of the 20th century, someone in the USDA decided that farmers and meat producers needed a consistent way to determine if one beef carcass was superior to another, so they began to work on ways to differentiate carcasses based on their eating satisfaction. There is a very detailed history of meat grading on the Texas A&M meat science website.
How are cattle graded?
Today, cattle are graded in beef processing plants by USDA employees whose services are paid for by the beef packing companies. In some plants, grades are applied with the help of cameras and computers.
|I am not a USDA grader, but I can estimate |
grades. Here, I am grading some carcasses
for a small processor. You can see how the
carcass is cut for the grader to evaluate it.
First, the grader determines if the cattle are young. They look at specific bones along their backbone to make this call. A very large percentage of the cattle that are graded by USDA graders are young. Because the beef from older cattle can be significantly tougher, they are graded differently. It can get pretty complicated, but if it REALLY interests you, check it out on the Texas A&M meat science webpage.
Next, the grader looks at the marbling. That’s the important part. Each carcass will be cut so the USDA grader can look at the ribeye muscle at the 12th rib. They compare the marbling in each ribeye to the marbling in a set of standardized cards to determine the Quality grade. The graders give the carcasses marbling scores that match up with the USDA quality grade.
What do the different grades mean?
Prime, the highest grade classification, has the greatest amount of marbling (an Abundant, Moderately Abundant or Slightly Abundant marbling score). Only about 4% of carcasses will grade Prime. These cuts are sold in expensive restaurants and fancy hotels because they are the most tender and juicy.
Carcasses that qualify for Choice are considered high quality, and having a high percentage of beef that grade Choice has always been a goal of cattle producers. Today, about 2/3 of the beef carcasses graded in the US qualify for Choice. All of the quality grades are divided into high, average and low, but within Choice, those divisions are priced and marketed separately.
Carcasses from the top two divisions in the Choice grade will often qualify for one of many USDA Certified programs, such as Certified Angus Beef, Sterling Silver Beef, or Chairman’s Reserve. These marketing programs incorporate quality grade with other carcass standards to set themselves apart. Having more marbling than low Choice beef (Modest or Moderate marbling scores), these cuts are very tender and juicy and are often found in nice restaurants and fancy grocery stores.
When beef is labeled as USDA Choice, it is mostly likely low Choice beef. Still high quality cuts, low Choice is found in many stores and restaurants. They have less marbling (a Small marbling score) and are less expensive, but can still be tender and juicy if prepared correctly.
Cuts that qualify for the Select grade have less marbling than Choice (a Slight marbling score), but these cuts are lean and full of protein. The Select grade is very uniform and these cuts can be quite tender, juicy and flavorful, especially if braised or prepared with marinades and cooked to lower degrees of doneness (medium rare). They are the least expensive of the grades we have discussed.
There are other grade classifications for carcasses that don’t have enough marbling to even grade Select (USDA Standard) or carcasses from older animals (USDA Commercial and Utility). You probably won’t see those advertised in a store or a restaurant. There is also a whole different type of grading (Yield grading) that evaluates the percentage of edible beef each carcass will produce based on how much muscle and fat is in it, but those grades are largely used within the industry for pricing, and not really marketed to consumers.
Quality grades are not perfect indicators of beef tenderness. You may still find tough steaks that were graded Prime, and you can probably find tender ones that were graded Select. Meat scientists are always working on ways to improve our ability to predict tenderness. (That was actually my Master’s project.)
Hopefully, the next time you go to the store or to a fancy steak restaurant, you’ll have a better understanding of what these USDA Quality Grades mean. Please let me know if you have any questions.