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What’s Your Beef – Prime, Choice or Select?

Infographic (click to see larger version) outlining the differences between USDA’s beef grades.

Infographic (click to see larger version) outlining the differences between USDA’s beef grades.

The USDA grade shields are highly regarded as symbols of safe, high-quality American beef.  Quality grades are widely used as a “language” within the beef industry, making business transactions easier and providing a vital link to support rural America. Consumers, as well as those involved in the marketing of agricultural products, benefit from the greater efficiency permitted by the availability and application of grade standards.

Beef is evaluated by highly-skilled USDA meat graders using a subjective characteristic assessment process and electronic instruments to measure meat characteristics. These characteristics follow the official grade standards developed, maintained and interpreted by the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service.

Beef is graded in two ways: quality grades for tenderness, juiciness and flavor; and yield grades for the amount of usable lean meat on the carcass. From a consumer standpoint, what do these quality beef grades mean?

Prime beef is produced from young, well-fed beef cattle. It has abundant marbling (the amount of fat interspersed with lean meat), and is generally sold in restaurants and hotels. Prime roasts and steaks are excellent for dry-heat cooking such as broiling, roasting or grilling.

Choice beef is high quality, but has less marbling than Prime. Choice roasts and steaks from the loin and rib will be very tender, juicy, and flavorful and are suited for dry-heat cooking. Many of the less tender cuts can also be cooked with dry heat if not overcooked. Such cuts will be most tender if braised, roasted or simmered with a small amount of liquid in a tightly covered pan.

Select beef is very uniform in quality and normally leaner than the higher grades. It is fairly tender, but, because it has less marbling, it may lack some of the juiciness and flavor of the higher grades. Only the tender cuts should be cooked with dry heat. Other cuts should be marinated before cooking or braised to obtain maximum tenderness and flavor.

Standard and Commercial grades of beef are frequently sold as ungraded or as store brand meat. Utility, Cutter, and Canner grades of beef are seldom, if ever, sold at retail but are used instead to make ground beef and processed products.

Recently, USDA collaborated with the United States Meat Export Federation and Colorado State University to develop an educational video about the beef grading process. This video provides a comprehensive overview of the beef grading system – from farm to table.

So next time you are at a restaurant or grocery store, look for the USDA grade shield and you will better be able to answer the question, “What’s your beef?”

37 Responses to “What’s Your Beef – Prime, Choice or Select?”

  1. Rick J says:

    Thanks, Chief!!

  2. Ibrahim Khan says:

    very interesting and informative article. thanks.

  3. Jerry Cunningham says:

    Here is what is left out of this front piece for the status quo of beef production.

    In addition to more “marbling” i.e., fat – these animals are dosed with antibiotics to keep their failing livers from killing them before slaughter.

    80% of all the pharmaceuticals sold in the US goes into farm animals. BigPharma has you in it’s grip.

    Beef cattle are herbivores, fitted by Nature to eat grass. But BigAg wants to feed the world the same diet that is killing Americans with Heart Disease and Diabetes, and etc.

    Come clean USDA! Our beef production system is an anachronism. Up to 30% of all corn produced is fed to these animals.

    We don’t have a Farm Policy, we have a Money Policy for the benefit of the Chemical Pharmaceutical cabal that owns the USDA and the FDA and your legislators.

    How long will you stand for this atrocity America?

  4. Josie says:

    Pictures would be great here! Perhaps a few of the standard cuts and what it looks like on the shelf. I have to explain “marbling” every once in a while, it might be great to have some exaples. Also, there is often a difference between a cut of meat that has a lot of fat on it, vs a cut that has a lot of marbling.

  5. Loretta Al-Uqdah says:

    I agree with Jerry. Cows are suppose to graze on grass not but forced fed with corn. It’s unnatural so the corn makes the cattle weigh more. The fill them with anti-bodies and that goes into our bodies when we eat the meat. All of this in the name of money. It’s a shame. We turn our back on the natural way things should be done in the name of money. It’s a crying shame.
    Let’s start caring about the health of the people. America is at the bottom of the list of the top 20 richest countries and we have the shortest life span. This tell us all something.

  6. stan says:

    good grief? Why is it that the obviously less educated people complain the most?

  7. Steve Wilkins says:

    Capitalism will always win in America until we the people stand up against those in power who make the rules.

  8. Patrick says:

    To Loretta and Jerry—the FDA as well as most Gvt agencies cannot come clean! They are too deeply imbedded in the crime!

    Only the voter and the consumer can come clean! If you don’t like second hand hormones buy hormone free food. Grass fed beef is available, buy it! And for goodness sake stop voting for politicians who have sold out to industry.

    Above all stop complaining, act!

  9. Christopher says:

    Jerry – the only conspiracy involved in “finishing” cattle with corn is the conspiracy of consumer preference. People don’t like the flavor and quality of grass-fed beef. Well-marbled beef is more flavorful and tender, and well-marbled beef is grain-fed beef. That’s what consumers prefer. You can complain all you like about consumer preference (and you may be right about it), but there is no evil plot on the part of the USDA or “Big Ag”. They are just selling people what they want.

  10. Loretta Al-Uqdah says:

    Thanks Pantrick, you’re partially right. We all have to work to make our government responsible but we can’t do it by ourselves. Personally I try to make responsible choice for myself and my family. At the same time we should make others aware of the problem too. Yes we should vote for politicians that are sensitive and responsive to our concerns. The problem is you need a magnifying glass to find them.

  11. Steve says:

    Anymore, it is getting harder and harder to find USDA ‘Choice’ meat sold in supermarket chains in Southern California. Most of what is offered is ‘Select’ which is the least tasty and much tougher to cut and digest than choice or prime. It is less expensive, I understand that, but I won’t buy it anyway. Am eating more poultry and pork these days.

  12. JT says:

    MMMMM….. Tasty pharmaceuticals.

  13. Hoopie says:

    Cut me off another slice of yet another conspiracy theory! Here’s a thought, if you don’t like it DON’T EAT IT! I will eat steak and drink Crown until they throw dirt in my face. And when they do it will be with one big smile! While you guys are out there looking for the second gunman on the grassy knoll, trying to find Jimmy Hoffa, UFO’s and proof that Bigfoot exists, I’ll be out there enjoying my life. The funny thing is all the people out there complaining about EVERYTHING are the very ones pumping out children left and right. Man get a life and enjoy what time you have.

  14. Linda says:

    Sorry, but your big Ag and big Pharma tales just do not occur. I was raised on a Kansas cattle ranch which was homesteaded by my great great grandparents in 1859. We pretty much ran things the same way they did way back then. Cattle graze on grass in the summer with fodder and corn chop fed in the winter when the grass dies back and the snows come. Yes, they get antibiotics, but only if sick and vet prescribed. Last 100-150 lbs of growth they are fed grain to fatten- reason the public wants flavor and marbling so the meat is tender. The public will not eat shoe leather which is what you get feeding only grass. Those who complain about grain fed beef know nothing of cattle and even less of consumer likes and demands.

  15. jamedl says:

    I love meat

  16. Chet says:

    I like a little red meat, once a week to be exact. I’m trying to determine is why do the ranchers feed the cattle Abx so often if the cattle isn’t ill? Please explain.

  17. Dan says:

    I roasted a USDA Prime grade rib roast last night that atually came from a local organic and natural food store. It was conspiracy-free and delicious.

  18. Ricardo says:

    Mi pregunta es como diferenciar un choice de prime o select…..

  19. Meaty Man says:

    Corn fed is delicious. Stop being such babies. Nom nom nom!

  20. farmer says:

    Linda I also raised cattle for beef. You are like all my lazy neighbors who sit in the house watching fox knows. I hope monsanto kills all of your cattle so you will open your eyes.

  21. Rhys says:

    There is a home delivery service that claims to sell “usda prime”. How do I know if that is legit. Do they need to be authorized? I have seen rolls of USDA Prime stickers available online – I could buy them.

  22. Anon Y. Mous says:

    Sure consumers prefer corn-fed beef, and it only took two generations of manipulation to achieve that…people learned to like the only beef available in stores. It’s just like why people like McDonald’s…because their conditioned to it.

  23. John Kerman says:

    How do you know what grade of meat you’re buying (in Arizona) if it’s not marked on the package? Shouldn’t this be a requirement by law?

  24. Jim furnash says:

    If a grocery store sells choice beef, are they required to include the choice sticker in the packaging?

  25. David Wolkle says:

    When I worked in Armour’s South St. Paul, Mn. slaughter house in 1969 the meat was sold as Select, Choice, Prime and Hotel Cuts. Is Hotel Cuts a grade or something else? It wasn’t for sale then nor now. Hotel Cuts always sold right away and the other grades price was reduced as days in the cooler increased until such time (7 days I think) as it had to be frozen. Is Hotel cuts a grade or just a way separate the best for pricing, and how do I get Hotel Cuts? I can’t find it in stores or the few remaining butchers available to the public.

  26. jerry says:

    If you do not like do not buy it, stop whining.

  27. Ben [USDA Moderator] says:

    @Rhys, thanks for your question about grade labels. If a product is graded, advertised, and sold as USDA Prime, the packaged product or box must be labeled as such. In addition to the grade or grade shield, the product will also bear the USDA inspected and passed round shaped logo with the processing plant number inside.

  28. Ben [USDA Moderator] says:

    @John, thanks for your interest in grading. If the meat case, or product is not marked with a USDA grade, then the product has not been graded or is being advertised and sold without a grade. Grading, unlike USDA safety inspections, is a voluntary service; however, if a grade is advertised and sold the product must be of that grade.

  29. Ben [USDA Moderator] says:

    @Jim, thanks for reaching out. If USDA Choice beef is being sold, the product or meat counter must be labeled with the grade. USDA performs reviews of retail labeling to assure the graded product is being accurately labeled.

  30. Ben [USDA Moderator] says:

    @David, thanks for the question. Hotel Cut is not a grade of meat. Most likely these products are cut, selected, and trimmed based on more exact specifications (which can include USDA grades) from the hotel or distributor.

  31. mable says:

    Will USDA offer grass feed in the future. For those of us who would like to buy grass feed at a affordable price.

  32. Bob says:

    If you saw a package of “FS” ribeye steaks….what would that mean to you? Also does all meat sold in stores require usda inspection and stamping?

  33. Ben [USDA Moderator] says:

    Hi Bob – thanks for submitting questions. FS is not a common meat industry abbreviation; however, it might mean Full Service, in that it was designated to be sold through the full service (cut & wrap) section of the retail butcher shop. All meat sold at retail is required by regulation to meet USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service wholesome and safety requirements and be processed in approved U.S. establishments under strict sanitation requirements. All packages of meat must bear the round USDA Inspected and Passed label which has the plant number inside the logo. USDA grading, such as Prime Choice, and Select, is a voluntary service used to designate differences in palatability, juiciness, tenderness, and flavor.

  34. Jesse Springer says:

    Question for the USDA moderator: If I buy a cry-o-vac “primal cut” and it is advertised as “choice”, does it need the USDA shield on the packaging? I purchase such cuts at area warehouse stores, mostly packed by Excel or Swift. Sometimes, the processing companies packaging will merely state “USDA inspected”, but the store-applied price tag will say “choice”. I have been emailing Excel’s customer service, but not gotten a clear response.

  35. C. R. Stucki says:

    I was recently served “Bacon Wrapped Tenderloin Steak” purchased at a warehouse supermarket. They were vacuum packed, 1 in. thick, and cost $9/lb. I could find no USDA grading label on the packaging. We grilled them to the “Medium Rare” temp on an instant-read thermometer. The meat was so damn tough, they were all but inedible. Being almost 80 yrs old, I well remember when ANYTHING in the store labeled “tenderloin was ‘melt-in-your-mouth’ tender. What has happened to the beef industry?

  36. Ben [USDA Moderator] says:

    @C.R. – thanks for the question. USDA grades such as Prime, Choice, and Select are produced from animals normally 18 – 30 months of age and can be used as indicators of tenderness, juiciness, flavor and palatability. Since there was no grade on the package, the product you purchased was most likely not graded. Some high value case ready packaged cuts such as the tenderloin (filet) from older ungraded animals are used to meet certain consumer preferred price points. As animals age muscle fibers restrict and become more tough, thus cuts from these animals may need to be marinated longer or cooked using low heat to achieve desired tenderness.

  37. Doug Noble says:

    I bought a New York steak from our local market (Safeway). it says, “USDA certified Tender” on the shield. that is not a grade. What is it?

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