There are eight beef grades based on two main criteria: the degree of marbling in a piece of beef along with its maturity. These grades reflect the beef’s eating quality. The USDA grading system breaks down the quality grades of beef by the following criteria:
- U.S. Prime – Highest in quality and intramuscular fat, limited supply. Currently, about 2.9% of carcasses grade as Prime.
- U.S. Choice – High quality, widely available in the food service industry and retail markets. Choice carcasses are 53.7% of the fed cattle total. The difference between Choice and Prime is largely due to the fat content in the beef. Prime typically has a higher fat content (more and well distributed intramuscular “marbling”) than Choice.
- U.S. Select (formerly Good) – lowest grade commonly sold at retail, acceptable quality, but is less juicy and tender due to leanness.
- U.S. Standard – Lower quality, yet economical, lacking marbling.
- U.S. Commercial – Low quality, lacking tenderness, produced from older animals.
- U.S. Utility
- U.S. Cutter
- U.S. Canner
The majority of the steaks sold in the retail cooler at the local supermarket are going to fall into Prime, Choice, or Select. Prime is the highest quality of beef available and its high level of marbling makes it ideal for grilling or other dry cooking methods. While Choice is still high quality beef, it has less marbling than Prime. Select is a leaner quality of beef and more uniform. It tends to be less juicy and tender than Prime or Choice. For this reason, they are typically marinated or braised for consumption satisfaction. Standard and Commercial grades of beef are frequently sold as ungraded or as store brand meat.
The next time you’re grocery shopping or eating at a restaurant look for the USDA grade shield to better understand the quality of the beef you’re eating!