Before marrying my cowboy husband and learning far more about cattle than I ever dreamed, I always thought Angus meant quality and better nutrition. If I saw an Angus steak on a restaurant’s menu, I thought I should order it for health benefits.
Drum roll please….
It’s a black cow. Yep, that’s it.
Are you surprised like I was?!?
Learning that “Angus” has become a huge marketing term made me start asking questions. I thought I’d share some of what I’ve learned so far:
What’s Angus? Angus is a breed of cattle, and there are two types of angus: Red Angus and Black Angus. It is derived from Aberdeen Angus, which originated in Scotland, and it came to the U.S. in the 1800s. “It’s a fast growing, reliably tender and well-marbled animal,” (wiki) so it became very popular to breed. In the U.S., Red Angus and Black Angus are known as two separate breeds because of the color of their hide, but in other countries, they’re recognized as the same breed.
What does it take to be labeled Angus? An Angus cow has to be at least 51% black-hided. That’s it. It has nothing to do with the quality of meat. It has to do with the color of the cow’s skin. Are you shocked yet? I was. (As a side-note, I told a friend what Angus really is, and she said it’s racist to label a cow like this. I have to agree. If we did this to people, it’d be a crime.)
Why isn’t there more to judging Angus than the color of it’s hide? Because the USDA classifies cattle by phenotype (visual traits). That means when a cow is being graded by the USDA the primary thing they’re looking for is the color of its hide. If it’s 51% black, it’s Angus. And for the real clincher, if it’s a Red Angus cow (i.e. red hide), it will be labeled as Red Angus. How many “Red Angus” marketing slogans have you seen?
How did we get here? In 1978 the “Certified Angus Beef” brand was established by the American Angus Association. They did identify 10 quality specifications for “Certified Angus Beef,” but they were also so successful in establishing a positive reputation for Angus beef, that other Angus beef marketing campaigns started popping up in the early 2000’s. These are generally the campaigns you see at fast food and grocery store chains.
What does this mean for us, the consumers? First, it means you will be paying more for a “Certified Angus Beef” labeled since they’ve done such a great job marketing it. Second, it means when you select beef, you should pay the most attention to the grade – Prime, Select, Choice – not if it is Angus or not.
So, what do you think? Are you surprised like I was? Chime in on the comments.