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Grades of Beef (USDA Beef Quality Grades)

The importance of beef quality grades cannot be overstated. Connoisseurs and meatpackers alike are well versed in the beef industry’s grading vocabulary that is used to evaluate by a matrix of factors that determine tenderness, juiciness, and flavor.

While approaches to grading vary from country to country. In America, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) assigns beef to one of eight quality grades using two main criteria: the degree of marbling (or intramuscular fat) and degree of maturity (approximate age of the animal at the time of harvesting).

For nearly a century, beef grades have symbolized confidence and assurance in the quality and safety of the meat as it goes from farm or ranch-to-table.

USDA Beef Grading System

There are eight grading tiers that the USDA assigns each cut to in the grading process, with the majority of steaks sold to consumers falling into three categories.

USDA Prime

Prime is the ultimate American beef grade, making up only 5–6 percent of all American beef. Young, well-fed cattle produce fairly abundant marbling, giving Prime beef its signature flavor, tenderness, and desired texture. Often commanding a hefty price, Prime beef graces the menus of fine dining establishments and steakhouses across the Nation. If there is very abundant marbling, the beef can be graded Prime+.

USDA Choice

The second tier is Choice, which features less marbling than Prime but maintains its supreme quality and signature tenderness, juiciness, and flavor. Making up nearly 70 percent US beef production, Choice is generally what you’ll find at the local grocery store.

USDA Select

With even less marbling, Select is generally more uniform in texture and leaner than Prime and Choice. Select beef is tender and, if prepared correctly, can unleash adequate flavor (albeit nowhere near the tenderness and flavor of its superior grades).

The Eight USDA Beef Grades

In order of highest to lowest:

  1. Prime
  2. Choice
  3. Select
  4. Standard
  5. Commercial
  6. Utility
  7. Cutter
  8. Canner

The top three beef grades that are most commonly served at restaurants and available in grocery stores are Prime, Choice, and Select. The bottom five grades are of significantly lower quality, lacking the same tenderness and flavor of the highly sought after in Prime, Choice, and Select.

How is beef graded?

The primary determiner of quality grade is the extent of marbling on the ribeye or the interplay between fat within the lean. Coveted more than any other grading factor, marbling is the white streaks of intramuscular fat that are dispersed throughout the pinkish-red lean meat. It gives the meat its mouthwatering flavor and irresistible moistness. Generally, the more moderately abundant the marbling (around eight to 13 percent), the more tender, moist, flavorful—and valuable beef becomes. Inspectors assess marbling between the 12th and 13th ribs to understand the degree of marbling.

Maturity & Cattle Age

Marbling isn’t the only important grading factor, however, and the age of the cattle at the time of harvesting is a key factor in determining quality. Beef meat bears a high grade due to the moderate abundance of marbling and higher fat content, and cattle raised on grain (i.e., corn) generally yield more marbling than grass-fed beef. USDA Prime and Choice beef cattle, for example—which yield the finest marbling among American cuts—are between the age of 28-29 months when harvested.

Cattle Feeds & Breeds

The unique combination of feed and breed underscores the beautiful contours of marbling across cuts. Not all breeds and feeds are the same. Some breeds are naturally poised for marbling: there’s the gorgeous, tried-and-true marbling of Black Angus and the award-winning marbling of Wagyu. Some prized cuts owe their rich marbling to a corn-intensive diet. Innovations in responsible cattle raising and environmental factors play an important role, but feed and breed are the ultimate determiners of marbling.

Grading Wagyu Beef

Japanese Wagyu beef (“Wa-gyu” meaning Japanese cattle) is graded exclusively by the Japanese Meat Grading Association. A true showstopper, Japanese beef is renowned for its exceptional whisps of marbling and unmatched quality. There are many breeds of Wagyu beef that are raised outside of Japan, such as in the US (American Wagyu) and Australia (Australian Wagyu). However, Japan’s separate grading system used universally for Wagyu beef, factors in (1) Yield and (2) Grade.

Yield

Yield refers to the relationship between total meat weight and actual weight. Over 72% yield is considered to be in the “A” range.

Grade

Grade is a combination of overall Beef Marbling Score (BMS), Beef Color Standard (BCS), Beef Fat Standard (BFS), firmness, and texture.

These two factors together determine the Japanese grading. A5 Japanese Wagyu, for example, is a yield-A, grade-5 beef, the highest percentile of both requirements.

Inspecting beef grades

Inspectors must visually identify the degree of marbling present and, together with other factors, determine the grade based on a composite of data. In Japan, the Beef Marbling Score (BMS) quantifies the degree of marbling in beef, with a maximum grading of 12. Wagyu beef has a BMS of 3 or higher, and only 100% full blood Wagyu can receive an A rating.

For Choice, Select, and Prime beef in the United States, the degree of marbling is scrutinized to assign each carcass a unique marbling grade: slight (Select), small (Choice–), modest (Choice), moderate (Choice+), slightly abundant (Prime­–) or moderately abundant (Prime+).

Which grade of beef should you buy?

Depending on how you prefer to prepare and enjoy beef, there are various routes you can go:

USDA Prime Beef

Ideal for dry-head cooking methods such as broiling, roasting, or grilling. Think savory and tender 16 ounce Prime New York Strip.

USDA Choice Beef

You don’t have to have the most exceptional marbling to have incredible flavor. Found at the supermarket, Choice cuts are great for low- and slow-cooking methods such as smoking and braising.

USDA Select Beef

You’ll need to use a high-heat, quick-sear approach for this leaner grade of beef. Thin cuts of Select beef like flank steaks, when marinated properly, make for a tender, flavorful meal.