Do you know the difference between Prime, Choice and Select Beef? When you’re having dinner at an upscale steakhouse, you may hear that they only serve Prime Beef. Here’s what the beef grades really mean and why they’re important.
What is the difference between prime, choice and select? The obvious answer to this question is price. Prime is always more expensive, but what makes it more expensive? And is the extra cost worth it?
What are beef grades?
The USDA Grades beef to signify that it’s high quality beef that is safe to eat. The beef grades also tell you the amount of tenderness and amount of marbling to expect in the beef.
Technically, there are eight grades. However, in the retail world, you only hear of three of them — Prime, Choice and Select.
Top 3 grades of beef: Prime. Choice. Select.
Prime Graded Beef comes from well-fed beef cattle and it has lots of marbling (i.e. white flecks of fat within the beef). You usually find Prime Beef at restaurants and hotels. It’s known for being full of flavor, and very tender and juicy. Only about 2 percent of today’s beef is of the highest USDA grade, or prime, which, has the highest level of marbling.
Choice Graded Beef is very high quality, but has slightly less marbling than Prime. Choice beef is very tender and juicy. It is the most widely available grade of beef, and about 50 percent of beef is graded choice by the USDA.
Select Graded Beef is even more lean than Choice. Select has less marbling, so that means it may also lack some of the juiciness and flavor of the higher graded meat. The USDA grades about 21 percent of beef with the select grade.
Who decides if beef is Prime, Choice or Select?
All meat for public consumption in the U.S. must be inspected by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). In some states, like Missouri, you can also have an inspector from a state inspection agency inspect meat. However, state inspected meat cannot cross state lines for sale.
How is beef graded?
When beef is inspected, USDA inspectors first inspect the live animal to make sure they’re healthy from head to hoof and treated humanely. They also inspect things like the slaughtering process, all of the animal’s parts and organs, the temperature of the meat, and they make sure the carcass stays as clean as possible during the entire process.
To determine a beef grade, the USDA grader looks specifically at the amount of marbling in the ribeye muscle between the 12th and 13th ribs. Based on that one location of the cow, they can then determine if the beef in the entire cow is Prime, Choice or Select.
If beef doesn’t pass inspection, it is removed entirely from the food supply. When beef does pass inspection, it is stamped or labeled with the USDA inspection stamp, and that means it is fit to eat.
The USDA’s inspection is all or nothing. There’s no half-way or partially-passed beef.
What qualities is beef graded on?
When beef graders are assigning beef grades, they look at two things: 1) quality and 2) yield.
Quality is what consumers are most familiar with — tenderness, juiciness and flavor of the beef. These attributes are determined by the age of the animal, farming practice and amount of marbling throughout the beef. For example, if an animal is fed grain it will have more marbling throughout the beef. If the animal is too old when it’s slaughtered, it will be tough.
The second area graders look at is yield, or the usable lean meat on the carcass. Consumers rarely hear about this portion of the beef grading, but beef processors are very familiar with it. A yield grade ranges from 1-5 and measures the layer of fat covering the meat. For example, a yield grade of 1 would be assigned to a ribeye with 5/10 of an inch of fat covering it.
It’s important to note that grades are specifically for things like tenderness, juiciness and flavor. They do not take into account grass finished or grain finished.
The USDA collaborated with Colorado State University on a video to show the meat grading process. It’s a comprehensive video if you’d like to learn more.
One more thing!
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