Know Your Beef: Here's What USDA Beef Grades Actually Mean

Dec 17, 2015 10:30 AM EST | By Alexis Villarias

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) approves all beef and ranks them according to tenderness, juiciness and flavour. Do you know what each grade means though?

The distinct shield emblem found on most packages of steak from your local supermarket is a stamp of approval from USDA. They are also found on menus of restaurants flaunting its prime-grade beef. To know why you're paying more for premium cuts over the unbranded ones, you have to know what each grade means. has explained each rank, from the best to worst:

1.     Prime Grade

Produced from young, well-fed beef cattle, this is the premium one. The meat of this grade becomes very flavourful and juicy due to a high degree of marbling. This is rarely sold in supermarkets and more likely found in high-end restaurants.

2.     Choice Grade

This has less marbling (distribution of fat among the muscle) but still a high-quality steak. This is readily available on most supermarkets. It still comes from young cattle although there's less distribution of fats compared to Prime grade.

3.     Select Grade

This grade has a leaner and a rougher texture. This has less marbling than Choice grade so it won't be as juicy or flavorful when cooked. Other cuts need to be marinated for optimum flavour and tenderness.

4.     Standard Grade

This is also known as the "store brand" meat tier. While marbling is relatively low, this is best for consumers who are on a budget. Though it's far from being flavorful or juicy, this grade is very safe for consumption.

5.     Commercial Grade

Like standard grade, this is low quality, has low marbling, low tenderness kind of beef. This beef is harvested from older animals unlike the previous grades mentioned above. This is usually ungraded or unlabeled.

6-8. Utility, Cutter, Canner Grades

Access to this grade of beef is difficult and you would not want to anyway. This grade has no marbling and often used to make ground beef, processed meat products and pet food. It has little to no flavour and often follow the taste of whatever it's cooked in.

So there you have it. Be guided accordingly on what USDA beef grades mean.

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