Beef has long been America’s favorite protein and rightfully so as it delivers great flavor and powerful nutrition. There is a myriad of product labels in the marketplace and we are here to provide insight regarding what each label represents. We hope the following tips will give you a better understanding of how to decipher your choices at the meat case and how to properly store it once you get it home.
Beef grading sets the standards for the various quality levels of beef. The beef grading program uses highlight trained specialists and sometimes grading instruments to determine the official quality grade. Beef quality grading is voluntary and administered by the USDA and paid for by the beef packers.
The USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) employs federal graders to grade beef on expected palatability (tenderness, juiciness, and flavor). Quality Grades are evaluated on factors such as degree of marbling, and maturity of the animal. While you may not know the maturity of the animal, there are some visual cues to help determine quality grades.
The color of the meat should be bright, cherry red. Beef does brown as it is exposed to air. If you store beef in a Ziploc or other plastic bag with a small hole, you will notice it browns quickly in your fridge. While it does not mean the meat has spoiled, you should still throw it out when in doubt. Alternatively, if you buy vacuum-packaged meat, it may appear darker. This is not a flaw with the meat, but rather a lack of oxygen passing through the packaging. The packaging is what allows it to stay fresh in your fridge longer than the standard Styrofoam and cellophane packaging.
The white fat that is interspersed within the lean muscle. Sometimes, especially in grass-finished beef, the fat can appear more yellow in color due to the animal's diet prior to harvesting. While extra-lean cuts provide a great option for those individuals requiring a low-fat diet regimen, it's also important to recognize that marbling greatly affects flavor. That is why the degree of marbling is one of the primary determinants in quality grade.
So where does this leave you? In the grocery store, you'll see quality grades printed on the label. Prime is the top-tier for expected palatability, Choice is most common, and Select is the leanest option available in (some) groceries stores. Learn more about the USDA’s AMS Beef Grading Program!
Prime beef is produced from young, well-fed cattle. It has abundant marbling, is produced in smaller quantities than other grades, and is often sold in hotels and restaurants. Prime roasts and steaks are excellent for roasting, grilling or broiling.
Choice beef is high quality and produced in highest quantity, but has less marbling than Prime. Choice is the most popular grade of beef in grocery stores. Choice roasts and steaks, especially from the rib and loin, will be very tender, juicy and flavorful. They are suited for roasting, grilling and broiling. Less tender cuts are perfect for slow-cooking.
Select beef is slightly leaner than Prime and Choice because it has less marbling. It can lack some tenderness, flavor and juiciness as compared to the higher grades. Select grade beef often benefits from slow-cooking or from marination prior to grilling or broiling.
Beef is inspected for wholesomeness and safety (mandatory), but that does not mean it was also graded. Grading beef is voluntary and not all smaller packers have their beef graded. You can use the guide above to help you make a purchasing decision. Please also note, grass-finished beef tends to be leaner. This will affect the way you cook it for maximum flavor, so be sure to ask your source for recommendations.
Beef sold in traditional supermarkets or club stores is required to have the nutritional information displayed at the point of purchase for most common whole muscle beef cuts. Ground beef is required to have the nutritional label on pack. If you purchase your beef through a non-traditional market such as at a farmers market, a small co-op or direct from a farm family, it might not have nutritional information on it. We invite you to look up the nutritional information on your beef cuts on the Interactive Butcher Counter. This online tool will also offer you recipe ideas for each cut of beef as well.
Understanding the labeling claims on a pack of beef can be confusing. The USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) works to ensure those claims remain consistent across the board from one producer to another. In an effort to help clarify some confusion, USDA’s FSIS put together a glossary of common labeling terms, such as “Certified,” “Organic,” “Natural,” “No Hormones,” and “No Antibiotics.” USDA’s Agriculture Marketing Service (AMS) oversees the Process Verified Program, which is a verification service that offers companies and brands a unique way to market their products to the public using clearly defined, implemented, and transparent process points. View the Process Verified Program Infographic for more information.
A large part of the beef industry’s job involves making sure that beef is safe and wholesome for consumers. BQA (Beef Quality Assurance) began as an effort to ensure that violative chemical residues were not present in marketed beef. Originally called “Beef Safety Assurance,” the program's early emphasis was on assuring the real and perceived safety of beef. However, BQA has become much more than a safety assurance program. Today, BQA programming is expanding with information to help producers implement best management practices that improve both quality grades and yield grades of beef carcasses. Previous National Beef Quality Audits have summarized that the number one leverage point to improve competitiveness and regain market share was to improve beef quality, uniformity and consistency. Additionally, the sectors that sell beef products indicated that improvements were needed in tenderness, palatability and a reduction in excess trimmable fat.
Many consumers are familiar with quality grades and may make purchasing decisions based on quality grades at retail. But, within the consumer atmosphere the term “quality” can be confusing. Consumers and even producers often find it difficult to distinguish between the various and different ways to define “quality” with regard to beef. We can better understand “quality” if we dissect the various contexts in which we consider quality. Click here to learn more about the Beef Quality Assurance Program.