How the USDA grades meat has an affect on the meat in your shopping cart
Who determines the quality and USDA of grades meat you buy? The grocery store? The meat processing plant? The federal government? Just how much do grades of meat affect the taste, tenderness and price of meat? These are increasingly important considerations, in light of the rising cost of putting meat on the table.
1. Understanding the federal USDA meat grading
In 1926 the United States Department of Agriculture adopted standards for classes and grades of beef. And, established a beef grading and stamping service for all inspected plants.
The USDA grading system is actually a voluntary system paid for by the beef industry. Department of Agriculture inspectors assign a grade to each beef carcass during the processing to ensure uniform quality in the marketing of beef. Not every cow that rolls through the processing plant is created equal and the prices reflect this variance.
2. How to recognize the 8 different grades of beef
Grades of beef are based on important quality factors such as marbling and the age of the animal. Marbling can be recognized as the flecks and streaks of white fat found throughout the beef. Typically, greater marbling equals more tenderness and flavor.
Higher-graded meats are higher-quality meats and come at a higher cost. The age of the animal can be an important part, too. Beef has the best flavor and texture when the animal is from 18 to 24 months old. Government grading will favor the younger animals.
There are eight USDA grades of beef. In order of descending quality they are: Prime, Choice, Select, Standard, Commercial, Utility, Cutter and Canner.
Beef grades of USDA Select and higher are likely to be acceptable quality for most consumers. But, avoid the lower grades, which seldom be mentioned by grade in supermarkets. Consider these 100% utility grade beef! Un-labeled cuts of meat are usually commercial or utility grade. The lowest USDA grades: Cutter and Canner, are used for unappetizing items such as canned meat and those curious meat sticks usually found inside convenience stores and truck stops.
3. The three top grades of beef
These are the most popular grades of beef sold in restaurants, grocery stores, warehouses and butcher shops.
USDA Prime beef: has the largest degree of marbling and is generally sold to fine restaurants, as well as, some selected meat markets. The beef tends to be significantly higher in price than other grades because less than 3% of processed beef is graded Prime.
Prime grade beef features the ultimate in tenderness, juiciness and flavor. Prime Rib, for instance, is a USDA Prime rib roast. Many better steak houses will serve only Prime cuts.
USDA Choice beef: has less marbling than Prime, but is still a high quality beef. This is the most widely sold grade of beef in grocery stores. It contains sufficient marbling for taste and tenderness, but will be priced less than Prime cuts. About 50% of beef processed each year has a grade of Choice.
USDA Select beef: a lower priced grade of beef with less marbling than Choice. Select cuts of beef vary in tenderness and juiciness. Select has the least amount of marbling, leaner than, but not as tender, juicy or flavorful as Choice grades. About 33% of beef processed falls into this category.
So, how does this change your shopping habits for beef? Big box retailers will typically sell USDA Prime and USDA Choice which are the best grades. Grocery stores usually offer USDA Choice and USDA Select. This will vary by store brand. Look closely and inspect each individual package of meat. Does it have marbling and tenderness matching or close to the next higher grade? Manager’s specials usually price lower grades cuts at a discounted price for weekly sales. But, again pay special attention to the individual meat package.
For stews and soups you can get by with less expensive cuts of beef. Bar-B-Q and broiled steaks will demand better cuts.
4. Grades of veal
Like beef, USDA inspectors grade Veal or Calf into the following categories: Prime, Choice, Good, Standard and Utility.
Prime and Choice grades will be the juicier and more flavorful grades. Because of the young age of the animals, the meat will have a light grayish-pink to light pink color, with a firm and velvety texture. The bones will be small, soft and appear red.
5. Grades of lamb
The grades for lamb are the same as veal. Two grades are found in grocery stores: Prime and Choice. Lower grades of lamb and mutton: meat from older sheep, Good, Utility and Cull will be seldom marked with a grade. Lamb is produced from animals less than a year old. And, the quality of lamb varies according to the age of the animal. Buy lamb that has been USDA graded.
Prime: very high in tenderness, juiciness and flavor with marbling for flavor and juiciness.
Choice: less marbling than Prime, but still high quality. Most cuts of Prime and Choice grade lamb such as: chops, roasts, shoulder cuts and leg will be tender.
6. Pork is different
Pork is not graded with the same USDA quality grades. It is produced from younger animals that have been bred to produce uniformly tender meat. The appearance of pork is important to select the best cuts. Look for pork with a small amount of fat on the outside. The meat should be firm and grayish pink in color. A small amount of marbling provides the best flavor and tenderness.
7. Grades of Poultry
The United States Department of Agriculture grades poultry into three categories: GradeA, B, and C.
Grade A: is the highest quality and the only grade that is found in grocery stores. It will be free from bruises, discolorations and feathers. Bone-in poultry products will free of broken bones. Entire birds and cuts with skin will have no tears in the skin or exposed flesh that could dry out during cooking. Grade A poultry will have a good covering of fat under the skin, fully fleshed and meaty.
There are no existing grade standards for necks, wing tips, tails, giblets, or ground poultry.
Grades B and C: are found in processed products where the poultry meat is cut up, chopped, or ground. When sold at retail, these items are not identified by grade.
8. Keeping meat safe at home
Avoid food poisoning at home by using proper meat handling techniques. Different meats will harbor various types of bacteria. Always wash and sanitize cutting boards and counters between preparing different types of meat or protein in the kitchen. Preparing, packaging and storage of meat demands recommended USDA food-handling techniques in the kitchen. Follow these steps.
1. Clean: Wash your hands and kitchen surfaces often with soap and hot water.
2. Separate: Separate raw meat from other types of foods.
3. Cook: Cook meat to the correct internal temperature. Use a meat thermometer.
4. Chill: Refrigerate or freeze all meat promptly.
For a complete list of meat handling and safety tips, visit the Federal Food Safety website.