How is beef graded? Understanding beef grades. What do the different grades of beef mean? Meat grading system.
Beef Grades Explained: USDA and Worldwide
The butcher counter can be a daunting place for the uninitiated. Beef cuts come with so many different names, labels, brands, sizes, types, and descriptors – and worst of all, sellers know that you arrive confused.
It’s a competitive business, and everyone from the rancher to the butcher wants to get top-dollar.
So how can you find the best cut for dinner without getting ripped off? The answer is education.
Understanding how the professionals measure beef is a great starting point. The USDA grades beef quality, and the best of the best is labeled and sold under particular criteria.
So, what’s really the difference between USDA Prime, Choice, or Select? Let’s take a closer look.
USDA Beef Grades
In the United States, the US Department of Agriculture has created a standardized beef grading system that has been in use since 1917. This scale is used everywhere, whether you’re shopping for cuts at the supermarket or dining at a restaurant. Grading beef is the responsibility of the department’s Agricultural Marketing Services branch.
Most consumers are familiar with the USDA scale’s three top tiers, which are Prime, Choice, and Select. But there are also five other grades issued by the USDA, including Standard, Commercial, Utility, Cutter, and Canner. These five grades don’t appear on packaging. Instead, they are sold as ungraded meat or used in processed foods.
The beef grading system’s primary goal is to standardize the product throughout the system so that prices can be set realistically. Farmers can get top dollar for their highest-quality meats, butchers don’t overpay for disappointing products, and retail customers can quickly identify desirable qualities.
Grading Criteria for USDA Beef Grades
The USDA system grades beef on two criteria. First, it ranks the quality of the meat in terms of tenderness, juiciness, and flavor. It is also looking at how much useable lean meat a carcass can produce.
The USDA’s primary methods to figure this out are the amount of marbling in the meat and the age of the animal.
Prime Beef Grade
Prime meat is the top-tier of the US grading scale. This meat has excellent marbling, which means it’s perfect for dry-heat cooking styles like grilling. Because of the high price point, it’s found most often in fine restaurants. In 2009, only about 2.9 percent of all beef produced in the US got the Prime label.
Choice Beef Grade
Choice beef is also very high quality, but not quite as well-marbled as a Prime cut. They are still tender and juicy, and they can be cooked over dry heat. But since there is less marbling, you might get better results by braising, roasting, or simmering the meat. Choice is by far the most common type of beef you will find graded, and nearly half of all beef in the US is marked Choice.
Select Beef Grade
Select beef is very uniform in quality and appearance and has much less marbling. Some cuts may have enough fat to tolerate dry heat cooking methods, but for the most part, these cuts should be marinated or simmered for maximum tenderness.
Standard Beef Grades
Standard or Commercial grade beef is usually sold in stores under a store brand or sold as ungraded. These cuts are typically used less for steaks or roasts and more for stew meats, stir fry trimmings, or ground beef.
All of the other USDA beef grades are used for processed foods and seldom sold as cuts. These are most likely to be found in supermarket freezer sections in pre-made foods like burritos or frozen dinners.
Brand Names and Other Labels
It’s becoming more common for consumers to rely on brand names when purchasing beef. For example, the Certified Angus Beef name brand has more recognition and meaning for most home chefs.
Many beef connoisseurs consider the source of the beef and how the cattle are fed to be more important factors than marbling alone. Many high-end brands can get lower grades, too; a lot of grass-fed beef comes with the USDA Choice grade.
The point is that there’s more to the story than the USDA grade alone. Other labels like “USDA Organic” or “grass-finished” may have more meaning to you personally, and they may even provide beef with the best flavors.
Remember, the USDA beef grades do not include qualities like what the cattle were fed, whether the feed was organic, the ranch conditions, or even nutritional differences. If you are looking for grass-fed or grass-finished beef, a Prime label offers no such assurances. The beef grading system only references the final quality of the meat in terms of marbling and yield.
Other Beef Grading Systems
Most other countries follow a very similar scheme for classifying beef quality. The predominant systems used for grading beef over the globe are the USDA system, the Japanese BMS, and the Australian MSA/AUS-MEAT.
Japanese Beef Grading
The most well-known standard for Wagyu, or Japanese beef, is the two-digit code, where the first letter is a yield rating, and the second digit is the quality of the meat. For example, the premium products are labeled either A4 or A5 Wagyu.
The Japanese take beef very seriously. Japanese-grown cattle are known as Wagyu, and the quality of Wagyu is all about marbling. The Beef Marbling Standard, or BMS, is a thirteen-point scale that measures marbling. Most beef falls somewhere between four and seven; USDA Prime is approximately equal to a four or five on the Japanese scale.
What are the Wagyu beef grades?
The highest-quality Wagyu cuts are graded seven and above. These steaks are revered as masterpieces in Japan; they are sliced thin and served simply in small portions. A5 Wagyu is graded between an eight and a twelve on the BMS, while an A4 Wagyu cut would be between five and seven.
None of the other world grading systems go as high as the Japanese in terms of the BMS. That’s fair because Japan produces beef that is unlike anything found in any other country. Anything over a BMS of nine is extremely rare and insanely expensive.
Australian Beef Grading
Australia is another nation that takes its beef grading very seriously. Their grading system is called the Meat Standards Australia (MSA), and Meat and Livestock Australia give the rating.
The MSA standards are still relatively new, but they are very comprehensive. The grading scale includes many factors not included in other scales, including color, pH, and fat depth. The scale starts at 100 points, which would indicate meat with no marbling, and goes all the way up to 1190, which would be extreme marbling. A score of 1100 or more is approximately equal to a BMS score of nine.
The older AUS-MEAT grades were scored from zero to nine, with nine indicating an extremely high marbling level. This makes the AUS-MEAT scale very similar to the BMS.
European Beef Grading
The EU has used a grid method known as EUROP to grade meat since 1981. This was facilitated when a region-wide scale became necessary as the EU began operating as a common beef market.
Each country follows the same grid scale, but each nation has its own regulatory agency responsible for labeling the beef. In the UK, for example, the Meat and Livestock Commission grades beef. Each member may have more details added than the EU system has.
The EUROP scale consists of a five-point scale, with each conformation and fat class divided into low, medium, or high. The results are 15 classes. The UK’s Meat and Livestock Commission, however, grades fats on a one to five scale, with fours and fives having a high and low variety. This allows for a seven-point scale that gives more precise measurements than the EU system alone.
On the EUROP scale, E is excellent, U is very good, R is good, O is fair, and P is poor. Fat is measured on a one to five scale. So a carcass may be graded as E4H, which would be described as excellent with high to very high fats.
Final thoughts about beef grading
There are many ways that various government agencies grade beef. How important they are when you walk up to the butcher’s counter is debatable.
If you are ordering online or in a restaurant and can’t physically see the cut, they’re invaluable. But with a little practice, you can see how marbled the meat is, and you can gauge its freshness and tenderness.
You can’t tell visually things like how the cattle were fed or whether or not hormones were used. These are areas where some other labels may help, but having a good relationship with a reliable meat monger is also a great solution.
Today’s guest post is provided by Joonas Jokiniemi, a cooking and barbecue enthusiast who likes to share his knowledge about recipes, ingredients, and different cooking methods. He runs his own website called Grill Smoke Love.
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What grade of beef do you buy? Do you raise cattle for beef? What kind of grades do your cattle get when they are harvested? Let me know below!