Shopping for beef can be an overwhelming experience, with labels like grass fed, organic, pasture raised and dry aged just scratching the surface of options available to you.
While these are all important considerations, the USDA grade is an easy way to quickly understand the quality of the meat you are buying.
In this guide, we’ll explain how the USDA grading system works and give you the information you need to pick the right grade of beef for what you want to cook.
How is beef graded?
In the United States, beef is graded by the USDA as Prime, Choice or Select largely based on two factors:
- The degree of intramuscular fat flecks in the meat often referred to as “marbling.” This is because marbling is generally considered to contribute to making beef feel tender
- The maturity of the carcass, or the estimated age at which the animal was slaughtered
The grading is done by highly trained specialists who use the amount of marbling, the meat’s maturity and other considerations, such as the color, and texture of the meat to determine the grade.
USDA beef grading is a voluntary process through which beef packers pay the Department of Agriculture to apply a subjective grade to their meat.
Grades of beef explained
- Prime – Prime is the highest grade of US beef, and less than 2% of all beef is graded Prime. Prime meat has significant marbling and is composed of around 8 to 13 percent fat. The beef comes from younger cattle, up to a maximum of B-Maturity, or 42 months old.
Prime beef has long been associated exclusively with high-end restaurants, specialty butchers, and top steakhouses. However, as the amount of prime beef on the market has increased it has tricked down into select supermarkets and online meat delivery suppliers.
- Choice – Choice beef still represents high-quality meat, but has less marbling and a lower fat percentage, around 4 to 10 percent. It comes from the same maturity range as prime beef.
Angus beef, a well-regarded breed, most commonly averages a Choice grade.
Choice beef is now widely available in supermarkets and at an increasingly competitive price. Walmart now sells USDA Choice Angus Ribeye Steak for just $9.97 a pound.
- Select – Select beef is most commonly found in supermarkets and is much leaner than the higher grades. It only exhibits slight marbling and contains just 2 to 4 percent fat. Select beef is taken from A-Maturity cattle, or those under 30 months
There are lower grades of beef than Select. However, Standard and Commercial beef are often sold ungraded in grocery stores, and the lowest classes are only used to make processed beef products.
For the purposes of this article, we’ll stick to covering the top three grades.
The problems with the USDA grading system
While the USDA system makes it easier to quickly categorize beef quality, it’s not without limitations.
One of the main issues is the narrow criteria the USDA uses for grading the beef. The grading system is based on the idea that marbling is the most crucial factor when it comes to the quality of beef.
An approach that is now much less widely accepted.
USDA grades do not take into account the level of nutrients in the meat, the process used to raise the animal, or the animal’s diet. It also does not take the breed of animal into account.
Online gourmet butcher Porter Road prefers to focus on how the animal is raised rather than how it is graded.
“We care more about how the animal is raised versus how it is graded”Porter Road
You could argue this is a marketing tactic to sell lower graded beef.
However, when their farmers have been graded it has come back as either Prime or Choice Plus.
The grading system doesn’t value a host of other factors that are important to consumers.
For example, grass-fed beef typically has lower levels of marbling than corn-fed meat so it is often graded lower, despite many people preferring the taste.
The grading system also only examines one cut, the ribeye between the 12th and 13th ribs, to determine the grade of the whole carcass.
This narrow grading excludes essential factors like the taste of the meat, the breed, the cut, and the actual quality of the fat.
The history of USDA beef grading
It’s helpful to understand a little bit about the history behind how beef gets graded.
Beef grading in the US was developed in 1927 as a form of marketing for the beef industry.
Farmers were suffering an agricultural recession in the 1920s, and it was hoped that the implied quality of the higher grades of beef would increase the demand for fatty corn-fed cattle.
For around 30 years, most of the beef graded under this new system came from Angus and Hereford cattle. These breeds were imported from Britain and produced fatty meat.
In the late 1960s, studies linked fat with heart disease. These studies, primarily funded by the sugar industry, led to Americans preferring leaner cuts of beef.
In reaction, the USDA reduced its marbling requirement for Prime, Choice, and Select graded beef.
These days, beef in the US generally comes from cattle that are 15 to 24 months old and have been “finished” with a grain diet during the last 8 months of their life. The grain finishing increases the fat of the animal.
This high-fat finishing and the age of the animal are significant factors in what grade the USDA gives the beef produced.
What about Wagyu beef grades?
A lot of people mistakenly believe Wagyu is a grade of beef.
This is incorrect.
When you see Wagyu offered at restaurants or in supermarkets, it is most likely domestic or American Wagyu from heavily crossbred animals with only trace amounts of Wagyu DNA.
These animals are still counted as “Wagyu” as the world literally just means “Japanese cow” but are not used or exported as high-end beef products and have nothing in common with actual Wagyu or Kobe beef.
Wagyu beef has a slightly different grading system because it is based on the Japanese Meat Grading Association (JMGA) guidelines.
Unlike the USDA system, the JMGA grades Wagyu beef on a scale of one to five, with one being the lowest quality. The final grading of the meat is based on this score:
- Poor (Quality score of 1)
- Below Average (Quality score of 2)
- Average (Quality score of 3 or 4)
- Good (Quality score of 5 to 7)
- Excellent (Quality score of 8 to 12)
The grading system also takes into account a few more factors than the USDA system. Waygu beef is graded based on the color and texture of both the meat and the fat, in addition to the amount of marbling.
If you want to try the real deal, you can now find a few online retailers that are importing and selling Wagyu direct to consumers.
Tips for buying beef
The USDA grading system is a good guideline to the quality of the meat you are buying. But it doesn’t give you the full picture.
So, if you are looking to get a quality cut of beef, here are a few tips you can use alongside the USDA grading system:
1. Choose the right beef grade for the recipe
The USDA grades are an excellent guide to the level of fat content you can expect in your cut of beef. You’ll need to take that level of fat into consideration when cooking.
Prime and Choice cuts of beef have the highest levels of fat, so you should be able to cook them with dry heat. This means you can roast, broil, or grill Prime and Choice cuts without them drying out.
Aaron Franklin prefers to use Prime brisket because the extra marbling helps to keep the brisket nice and moist.
With Select graded meat, traditionally tender cuts, like those from the loin, ribs, or sirloin, can be cooked with dry heat. Other cuts should be braised or marinated before cooking to keep the meat tender.
2. Consider the cut
One of the factors that the USDA grading system doesn’t take into account is the cut of beef you might be buying.
The USDA system grades whole carcasses based on the ribeye between the 12th and 13th ribs. Obviously, not every cut from the carcass is going to be the same quality, regardless of the grading.
It’s important to remember what the different cuts are and how they affect the taste and texture of the meat.
If you are looking for tender meat, then you are best off buying cuts from the tenderloin. This is where you’ll find the chateaubriand, filet mignon, and tournedos.
If you fancy something with more flavor, the rib eye and the sirloin hold less intramuscular fat but are far more flavorful.
3. Don’t discount grass-fed beef
For those that prefer the taste, the number of 100% grass-fed products on the market has risen significantly in recent years.
However, grass-fed beef rarely grades above a Choice because it lacks the marbling that is so important to the USDA grading system.
When picking a piece of beef, it is essential to bear in mind that the traditionally lower grading of grass-fed cuts does not indicate a lack of quality. It just means there won’t be as much marbling as cuts from corn-finished cows.
You may be limited in grass-fed options at your local supermarket, but you can always use grass-fed and organic meat delivery companies and get quality meat delivered straight to your door.
How meat is graded around the world
The US isn’t the only country to use a beef grading system. Depending on where you shop or eat, you might also come across grading systems from Australia and Japan.
The Australian beef grading system
Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA) grades beef using the Meat Standards Australia (MSA) system. This comprehensive system measures the color of the meat, marbling, fat depth, carcass weight, maturity, and even the pH balance.
The MSA scale runs from 100 (no intramuscular fat) to 1190 (extreme amounts of intramuscular fat) and goes up in increments of 10.
Occasionally, you might run into the older AUS-MEAT grading system, which runs from 0 to 9. AUS-MEAT advances in increments of 1, with 0 representing no intramuscular fat and 9 representing extreme amounts of intramuscular fat.
The Japanese beef grading system
We’ve already mentioned how the Japanese system grades Wagyu beef. The quality of the meat is graded one to five, with five being the highest, based on the following factors:
- meat marbling
- meat color and brightness
- meat firmness and texture and
- fat color, luster, and quality.
The same JMGA Beef Carcass Grading Standard applies to all beef in Japan with the addition of a “Yield Grade.”
The yield grade indicates the amount of usable meat on a carcass and is graded from A to C:
- A-grade typically indicates a full-blooded Wagyu cow
- B-graded beef is usually a crossbred Wagyu animal.
- C-graded meat is normally Angus or Holstein cattle.
Sometimes it’s ok to ignore the grading
The USDA grades are a useful guideline on specific aspects of the beef you are buying. They focus on the amount of marbling and the age of the animal when it was slaughtered.
When you’re buying beef, the Prime, Choice, and Select gradings are a great way to get an idea of how fatty the meat you are buying is.
What the USDA system doesn’t cover is what cut you are buying, what the animal had been fed, and how it had been raised. 100% grass-fed and older, more flavorsome, beef also doesn’t fit neatly into the USDA system.
When considering these factors, it is perfectly ok to ignore the USDA rating entirely.
Do you have any cooking tips for different USDA grades? Are there any factors we haven’t mention that you think are essential when buying beef? We’d love it if you’d let us know in the comments below!